Feds delay busing migrant kids to Oracle; rival groups demonstrate
Remark by Babeu prompted effort to blockade buses
Passions ran hot among two groups demonstrating near a new shelter for undocumented children in this small Arizona town, with both gearing up to display their fervor as the first buses of migrant kids were expected to arrive. Around noon, officials said that the children would not be driven to the shelter Tuesday.
Citing officials from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva's office said just prior to 12 p.m. that the unaccompanied minors would not be bused to the shelter in Oracle on Tuesday.
Once word spread that the buses were not coming, the crowd quickly dispersed, leaving only about a dozen diehards who said they planned to stay the night.
Earlier, a rare cloudy morning and the threat of rain didn't dampen the energy in either group. About 75 people opposed to the shelter were gathered at the road to Peppersauce Canyon, saying they intended to blockade the road to prevent buses with 40-60 undocumented children from entering the Sycamore Canyon Academy.
About two miles down the road, a group of about 50 people displayed their support for the children with signs of welcome, American flags and live mariachi music.
Echoing the protest that shut down the transfer of women and children to a shelter in Murrieta, Calif., last week, the protest against the shelter was organized after Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told organizers about the facility near the small town north of Tucson last week.
Babeu, a former congressional candidate whose political career has been built on hardline immigration rhetoric, was on hand to speak to the media and the protesters readying to block the road.
"We have our hands full with drug smugglers and others who pass through our county," Babeu told the demonstrators. "We are here to ensure the law is followed even though the federal government is not enforcing it's own immigration laws."
One of those at the intersection, prepared to show disapproval when the buses of Central American children arrived, was Oracle resident Keith Miller.
"It's not the kids, it's the secrecy. People are skeptical of the government, but if they had just come to us and asked for help, we could have given it," said the 61-year-old Miller.
Signs set up by protesters read, among others, "No Open Borders," "Texas D.H.S. Stop Dumping Your Illegals Here" and "No Se Puede."
Another, 64-year-old Marla Bemis of Oracle, said it wasn't that she didn't like the kids, but she "hated how the government was doing this."
The two groups were separated by about two miles, with little interaction between them.
At one point, a group of 20 counter-protestors marched from the east along with a five-piece mariachi band. Trumpeter Ruben Moreno, who was jostled a bit by protesters, played the Star-Spangled Banner as he directed his horn at those opposed to the shelter.
Ricardo Reyes, a Marine veteran, marched up and told the crowd, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. These are kids."
"I have never seen that much hate in people eyes. It has been emotionally and spiritually draining," immigration activist Jesus Magaña, who was among those who confronted the protesters. said as word spread that the buses of children wouldn't arrive Tuesday.
Politicians other than Babeu also seized the opportunity presented by the flood of reporters on the scene.
At the turnoff to the shelter were former state Sen. Russell Pearce, the force behind the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law before he was recalled from office, and ex-California congressman Frank Riggs, now running for the Republican nomination for Arizona governor.
At mid-morning, two school buses loaded with kids on their way to a nearby YMCA camp riled the crowd of protestors, who worried that somehow the children destined for the Sycamore Canyon were hidden aboard. As the buses passed, there was a fractious moment among the protestors.
"They could be hiding the kids in there," yelled one unidentified man.
Ron Thompson, who helped organize the event, stood next to the first bus and yelled, "The sheriff said they're kids from the Y."
"Why should we trust you?" said another man as the crowd continued to block the buses.
"I see a lot of Anglo faces," said another.
As the buses passed, Marla Bemis, 64 from Oracle asked, "Why would you send your kids through a protest?"
Republican congressional candidate Adam Kwasman, who stumped for his campaign earlier in the morning, tweeted: "Bus coming in. This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law."
Arizona Republic reporter Brahm Resnik asked Kwasman about the bus, “Did you know that was a bus full of YMCA kids?” Kwasman responded, “They were sad, too.”
In fact, the bus was full of smiling children who waved at the protestors and took pictures as the two buses maneuvered through the crowd.
Kwasman later deleted the tweet.
Speaking Monday night, Babeu raised questions about the undocumented children's possible affiliation with the notorious MS-13 gang, and the chance they might spread disease.
Thompson, a three-year resident of Oracle, organized the protest against the shelter, along with Robert Skiba.
"I'd like to protect America, but I realize that's a big chore, so I just want to protect our community," Thompson said Monday. He called for the protest because he believes that the unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are carrying diseases he fears will create a pandemic.
On Friday, the Pima County Health Department released a report stating that migrant kids and families were not a public health threat. Yet, Thompson remains unconvinced.
"The federal government is not doing its job and it makes me sick that this is something we're going to have to suffer through," he said.
Skiba, a 56-year resident of Oracle, was told about the facility by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu on Thursday, during a campaign event for Christine Jones, a Republican candidate for governor.
Babeu was "giving a speech on immigration and he turned to me and said Bob, they're coming to you," Skiba said Monday.
Skiba calls himself a community activist and that's why Babeu made sure to focus on him during the luncheon, Skiba said. The two met in 2008 when Skiba helped Babeu become sheriff, he said.
Once he knew about the facility's new contract with the federal government, Skiba presented the information to a political group in the area on Saturday and started planning a response.
Skiba told Breitbart News that he hoped to turn the children away.
"We're going to mobilize and we're going to do the best we can to stop this from happening," Robert Skiba told the website. "We're prepared for whatever happens. If they want to send in the SWAT team, armored cars, helicopters, let them do it. We'll have the media out there."
The Sycamore Canyon Academy is the proposed site for 40-60 migrant children, according to a news release from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
In the release, Babeu criticized the federal government's handling of this summer's influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
"We already have our hands full fighting the drug cartels and human smugglers. We don't need unaccompanied juveniles from Central America being flown into Arizona compliments of President Obama," Babeu said.
Illegal immigration is already big business in Pinal County.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has five permanent facilities in Pinal County in which suspected illegal immigrants are detained:
- Central Arizona Correctional Center
- Eloy Detention Center
- Florence Correctional Center
- Florence SPC
- Pinal County Adult Detention Center
Two immigration courts also operate in Babeu's county, in Eloy and Florence.
The sheriff, whose hard-line border stance was the center of a 2012 congressional run abandoned when his personal life became an issue with right-wing backers and his campaign was investigated for violations of the Hatch Act, acknowledged the protests and said his officers would be there to "ensure the peace in these lawful assemblies."
"Local residents have every right to be upset and to protest. Our federal government has failed to enforce any immigration laws," Babeu said in the release.
While it was an open secret for years that Babeu is gay, he was outed during his run for the GOP nomination when an ex-boyfriend — an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — alleged that Babeu threatened him with deportation if he exposed their affair. The sheriff denied the accusations.
During a Jones campaign event focused on border issues in Saddlebrooke on Monday night, Babeu said he need to be "fair and neutral" as a law enforcement officer, but he also argued that the juveniles coming through Oracle could be affiliated with the notorious El Salvadoran street-gang MS-13, and may carry serious diseases.
"My concern as a sheriff is to protect the 5,000 people" in Oracle, Babeu said. "I don't know who these people are."
Babeu said he had written letters and called federal officials at Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services.
"Guess what I heard back. Nothing," he said.
"I'm highly insulted as a sheriff, that the federal government has been completely silent and done this in secret." said Babeu, "All this information was reported by whistle-blowers and what's disconcerting for me and for the public is that no information is being shared."
"I have legitimate law enforcement concerns, I want to know who these people are, what their affiliations are and their criminal activity in their countries of origin," he said.
On the possibilities of disease, he left it as an open question. "I don't know the issues of public health," he said. "I don't know, but I have a concern."
Babeu reminded Monday's audience that they had a legal right to protest, but said his deputies would arrest people if they blocked the road or otherwise failed to follow a legal order.