ORACLE, Ariz. (AP) - Dozens of protesters on both sides of the immigration debate showed up in a small town near Tucson on Tuesday after the sheriff said the federal government plans to transport about 40 immigrant children to an academy for troubled youths.
The rallies demonstrated the deep divide of the immigration debate. One group waved American flags, held signs that read "Return to Sender" and "Go home non-Yankees" and said they would block a bus that was supposed to arrive with immigrant children aboard. A few miles up the road, pro-immigrant supporters held welcome signs with drawings of hearts. The dueling groups each had about 50 people.
"We are not going to tolerate illegals forced upon us," protester Loren Woods said.
Emily Duwel of Oracle said she did not want her town to be misrepresented by what she said was a minority of people against the children being housed here.
"I'm just concerned about these children who have had to escape worlds of incredible violence," Duwel said.
Anger has been spreading in the town of Oracle since Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu warned residents last week that immigrant children from Central America caught crossing the border illegally would be placed at the Sycamore Canyon Academy in Oracle. Protesters were hoping to mirror demonstrations in Murrieta, California, when immigrants were taken there recently.
Babeu is credited with stirring up the anti-immigrant protesters via social media postings and a press release Monday and by leaking information about the migrants coming to a local activist.
He addressed both sides of the protesters, asking them to remain civil, abide by the law and keep the roads cleared.
Babeu says he is concerned about public safety because he does not know whether any of the migrant children are gang affiliated or have health issues. He said that reports of health issues are likely overblown.
Babeu has generated controversy in the past over his immigration rhetoric. When five bodies were found in a burned-out SUV in his county in 2012, Babeu quickly declared that the killings appeared to be the work of a drug cartel. A few days later, it was learned that it was a murder-suicide of a suburban Phoenix family and not drug-related.
"All this was done in secrecy and that's where a lot of people are upset," Babeu said Tuesday. "My concern (is) where's the federal government? Why are they not here? Why did they not hold a town hall to answer some of these questions?"
Calls to the academy where the children were supposed to be housed were not returned. A spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services said the agency would not identify the locations of shelters for migrants to protect their identities and security.
"We don't know who they are. We don't know their health conditions. We don't know a doggone thing because the federal government isn't telling us anything," protest organizer Robert Skiba said.
Anger has been spreading since a massive surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally began more than a month ago. Though largely considered a humanitarian crisis, the influx of immigrants has also become political fodder.
In a state known for its strict immigration laws, including SB1070, which many call the "show me your papers" law, attitudes are just as contentious.
The fallout began in late May when reports surfaced that immigration officials were dropping off hundreds of women and children at Phoenix and Tucson Greyhound bus stations after they had been caught crossing the border illegally.
Within a week, immigration authorities were flying hundreds of children who had crossed the border into Texas alone to the Border Patrol facility in Nogales. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer sharply criticized the move and demanded it stop. Republican candidates for governor have also chimed in. Some are expected to attend the rally on Tuesday.