US immigration debate turns ugly
When the protesters saw the buses carrying the children heading towards them, they began to chant and yell, waving their flags and homemade banners. One woman was particularly insistent.
"Go home!" she shouted. "We don't want you, nobody wants you."
This was Tuesday afternoon in Murrieta, California, where a local group called We The People Rising gathered with the support of their mayor to protest against the transfer of undocumented immigrants - most of them unaccompanied minors - from Texas where authorities have been overwhelmed by a recent surge in the number of border crossers.
The buses waited for an hour or so before authorities gave up and the group of 140 was transferred to another nearby facility. A man with a megaphone declared that they had "defeated the enemy". Nothing could be seen of the children on board behind windows that had been blacked out.
While the protest was peaceful it was at times ugly and the group appeared to be motivated by a similar anger against the federal government that energised militia members who recently backed the rancher Cliven Bundy who had refused to pay land taxes.
The massive influx of would-be immigrants crossing the south-western border having travelled through Mexico from Central America began in 2011 when 4000 unaccompanied children arrived. This financial year 47,000 are expected.
Most are leaving Honduras and Guatemala where gang violence has spread rapidly.
The debate over what has caused what is now being called a crisis, and how best to respond to it, has fallen down along party lines.
Some Republicans blame Democrats who as part of a campaign for immigration reform have called for an amnesty for the children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in America.
Others blame a law signed in 2008 that treats children who arrive without documents more leniently than adults, allowing many to be released into the care of family members already in the US.
Last month the vice president, Joe Biden, travelled to Central America to discuss the problem with President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, and Co-ordinator General Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, representing the Honduran government. He sought to correct the "misperception" that unaccompanied children who make it to the border will have immunity from deportation in the long run.
Just days after Biden's trip, Hillary Clinton, who is expected to run for the White House in 2016 told a CNN town hall-style meeting, "We have to send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay."
For his part President Obama has blamed Republicans in the House of Representatives for failing to pass an immigration reform bill that has already been signed off on by the Senate. Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Monday he called for Congress to immediately approve US$2 billion in spending to increase resources on the south-western border to open more detention facilities, hire more immigration judges and speed up the deportation process.
Obama used the occasion to attack the Republican Party more broadly, saying, "Our country and our economy would be stronger today if House Republicans had allowed a simple yes-or-no vote on this bill or, for that matter, any bill," Obama said in the Rose Garden. "They'd be following the will of the majority of the American people, who support reform. And instead they've proven again and again that they're unwilling to stand up to the Tea Party in order to do what's best for the country."
This will be little comfort to the children who are already sleeping on floors in overcrowded facilities across Texas and increasingly across the nation.
Asked on Wednesday if the President was aware of the Murrieta protest, a White House spokesman ducked the question, saying instead that, "this is about balancing our responsibility to treat in a humane way those who are attempting to enter this country, but also sending a clear signal to everybody inside this country and to people in other countries who might be contemplating making the very dangerous trip to our south-western border that the law will be enforced. And that's exactly what's happening."