The federal government has suspended its plan to send the San Diego area hundreds of the Central American migrants who have been flooding into Texas illegally from Mexico, U.S. Border Patrol officials said on Thursday.
San Diego's Border Patrol agents will instead help manage the influx by processing paperwork and conducting intake interviews via computer and telephone, according to Gabe Pacheco, a spokesman for the agents' union, the National Border Patrol Council.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials declined to give a reason for the change. But it appeared driven by an outcry against the transfers in the town of Murrieta, California, where a Border Patrol office originally had been assigned to take in many of the migrants.
An initial group of about 140 undocumented detainees, mostly Central American women and children, was flown from Texas to San Diego on July 1, then were taken by bus north to Murrieta.
After processing there, immigration officials said, most were likely to be released within days under limited supervision - some to relatives and friends or charity organizations - to await deportation proceedings.
But angry protesters blocked the buses from reaching their destination, forcing diversion of the caravan to another station in San Diego. Murrieta officials and residents have continued their objections to plans for further transfers there, citing public safety and health concerns.
The immigrant groups are part of a growing wave of unaccompanied minors and families fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and streaming into the United States by way of human trafficking networks through Mexico.
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.
U.S. immigration officials say the crisis is being driven by a mix of extreme poverty, gangs and drug violence in Central America, as well as rumors perpetuated by smugglers that children who reach the U.S. border will be permitted to stay.
For now, overflow processing sites set up by the Border Patrol elsewhere in Southern California, and in Arizona and New Mexico, will continue accepting detainees to ease the surge.
Only Murrieta, whose 107,000 residents are mostly white, has erupted in demonstrations. By contrast, the town of El Centro, California, where whites account for 14 percent of the population and Hispanics 81 percent, has seen no protests.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Ron Popeski)