An angry, often raucous crowd of community members met with the nation's top Border Patrol official in Temecula on Friday and criticized the agency for limiting the arrests of suspected illegal immigrants in the interior of Southern California.
Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security came to Margarita Middle School to listen to the concerns of residents and Border Patrol union officials, and assured the crowd that theBorder Patrol will continue to enforce immigration laws aggressively and to combat terrorism.
That did little to satisfy many of those at the meeting.
"Why don't you let us do our job?" T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, asked Hutchinson, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.
In June, a special squad of Border Patrol agents arrested about 450 suspected illegal immigrants in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, triggering a series of protests from civil rights organizations that accused the federal agency of racial profiling.
After the sweeps, Homeland Security officials said the operation violated agency policy because it had not been approved in Washington.
Department officials want to concentrate Border Patrol agents at the borders and limit their inland activity to arresting illegal immigrants at transportation centers, including airports and highway checkpoints, agency records show.
Bonner and other Border Patrol agents have complained that the federal government has severely limited their powers following the recent sweeps.
The patrols were done by a newly trained team of 12 agents called the Mobile Patrol Group, which is based in Temecula.
Unlike most current Border Patrol activities, the sweeps targeted suspected illegal immigrants far from the Mexican border. Local immigration activists called the arrests a blatant example of racial profiling, and immigrants in communities throughout Southern California said they feared venturing outside or even leaving their children at school for fear of being arrested.
The audience at Friday's meeting was dominated by opponents of illegal immigration, and many criticized Hutchinson for placing restrictions on federal agents trying to crack down.
"You've got 11,000 agents," said one man in the audience. "All we're asking is let the dirty dozen go do its deed."
Hutchinson said the government is working to balance the concerns of border enforcement proponents and the issues raised by immigration advocates.
"Whenever you're getting criticized by both sides of the immigration debate, it probably means you're doing this [fairly]," Hutchinson said. "The Border Patrol units will continue to do their responsibilities. The Border Patrol is not going to go out and start doing enforcement based on racial profiling."
Bonner said the June arrests had been effective and criticized the policy of checking every operation with officials in Washington.
"We have to ask 'mother may I?' all the way to Washington, D.C., in order to conduct an operation in San Diego," Bonner said.
"These mobile patrol arrests were actually having an impact in Mexico. Word was getting around that you weren't necessarily OK once you got past the border."
Though the meeting often came back to the June arrests, audience members aired general grievances about lack of enforcement of immigration laws and the effect on their community.
Shannon Nelson, a middle school teacher trying to make a point about the lack of school supplies for American students, was booed because she said she loved all her students equally, undocumented or not.
"If a parent brings a child to the school we have to accept them," she explained after the meeting.
"What I was asking is what are you doing to stop this so that we can have more funds, for our students who are students of America."
Following the meeting, Paul Blocker, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in Chula Vista, said the mobile patrol unit was still in operation.
Its members will be placed wherever there is a need, and right now the No. 1 priority is guarding against terrorism on the border, he said.
"They're not the dirty dozen," Blocker said.
"They're the mobile patrol group and they're still out there, they're still working. We're going to concentrate on our priority mission ... terrorism."