By Marty Graham
ESCONDIDO Calif. (Reuters) - A San Diego suburb took center stage in the nation's acrimonious immigration debate on Tuesday as planning commissioners there rejected a proposal to open a temporary shelter for Central American children caught illegally crossing the U.S. border.
By a 6-0 vote, the Escondido Planning Commission found that the proposal for converting a now-vacant retirement home into a 96-bed shelter for young undocumented migrants was incompatible with the neighborhood, many of whose residents opposed the plan.
Tuesday night's action in Escondido, a town about 20 miles north of San Diego, comes as thousands of children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have been streaming into Texas from Mexico by way of human smuggling networks, fleeing extreme poverty, gangs and drug violence in their home countries.
The influx has overwhelmed U.S. authorities who have been hard-pressed to find temporary housing for the young migrants as they await deportation proceedings.
U.S. law bars undocumented Central American children from being summarily sent back to their home countries as they could be if they were from Mexico or Canada.
The situation already has stirred a backlash in places such as Oracle, Arizona, near Tucson, and Murrieta, California, about 30 miles north of Escondido, where some newly arrived migrants had been slated to be transferred for initial processing.
RIGHT OF APPEAL
Supporters of the Escondido shelter plan, developed by the nonprofit advocacy group Southwest Key at the behest of federal authorities, have 10 days to appeal the decision to the City Council.
David Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego County, said the planning commission's action "appears to violate fair housing law and state and federal land-use laws." The ACLU has sued the city twice since 2006 over policies the group said discriminated against Latinos.
About three-quarters of the 60 citizens who spoke at Tuesday's boisterous hearing supported the shelter proposal. Most opponents were residents of the neighborhood, which also includes a church and a high school in the immediate vicinity.
Earlier, immigration rights activists staged a march through the city, branding the commission's initial, tentative vote against the shelter last month as racist and out of step with a community where nearly half the residents are Latino.
Not all California politicians have been unwelcoming to the migrants. In Los Angeles last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was working with local charities in his city to find temporary shelter for undocumented Central American youths.
Los Angeles-based activists on Tuesday urged President Barack Obama not to strip away the protections offered to Central American child migrants under a 2008 anti-human trafficking law, which guarantees them the right to remain in the United States while deportation cases are pending.
More than 52,000 children traveling alone from Central America have been caught at the U.S.-Mexico border since October, double the number from the same period the year before. Thousands more have been detained with parents or other adults.
(Reporting by Marty Graham in Escondido, Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and by Daina Beth Solomon and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric Beech)