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Immigration Reform: Murrieta and Its Discontents

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After a long hiatus from the spotlight, the immigration debate has flared up once more. Following an incendiary incident in which anti-immigration protesters in Murrieta, California turned away buses of immigrants heading into a detention center, the issue is now receiving a significant amount of attention.

The protesters were responding to a recent influx of immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically near Texas. The majority of these immigrants are powerless women and children who have been displaced due to dire circumstances in Honduras and Guatemala. Border patrols have been rounding up these refugees and transporting them to processing centers where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials determine their legal statuses. Because most of the facilities in Texas are at maximum capacity, these immigrants are being transported to other processing centers. This most recent surge of migration has become such a major humanitarian issue that President Obama has asked for $3.7 billion dollars to help solve the problem

At first glance the Murrieta episode seemed like a major setback for immigrant-rights supporters, but could all of the press coverage of powerless children and raging demonstrators actually help the case for immigration reform? Could this be the push that the reform movement needs to gain widespread support for comprehensive reform?

Emily Ryo, an immigration expert and professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, tells Capital & Main she isn’t so sure.

“In social-movement research, there is some evidence that repression and violence can galvanize support for a particular group or cause in unexpected ways by triggering mass public outrage against those seen as responsible,” Ryo says. “But I am not optimistic. Immigration in general is an extremely polarized and polarizing topic that involves individuals perceived to be ‘outsiders.’”

Ryo adds that “comprehensive immigration reform involves a much broader segment of the immigration population than immigrant children and implicates different, and perhaps even more complex sets of issues than the ones raised by the current influx of unaccompanied minors.”

Eliseo Medina, a nationally known labor leader and immigrant rights activist, is more optimistic.

“I was extremely disappointed to see the images of the angry, intolerant people in Murrieta because this was not the America that I know,” Medina says. “If the people in Murrieta are unhappy with the broken immigration system, they should be yelling at their congress member, Speaker Boehner and the Republican Party, not at defenseless children. We are a nation of immigrants and, as we’ve learned throughout our history, they need us and we need them. The fight will continue and, at the end, there will be reform because no one man or party can block progress for long. We need justice– for the children, for immigrants and, most of all, for ourselves and for our future.”

There are steps that some groups are taking right now. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and some immigrant-rights organizations have filed a suit arguing that the children detained in immigration court deserve the right to free legal counsel. Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU of Southern California says, “If we believe in due process for children in our country then we cannot abandon them when they face deportation in our immigration courts. The government pays for a trained prosecutor to advocate for the deportation of every child. It is patently unfair to force children to defend themselves alone.”

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