By Dana Feldman and Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Dozens more Central Americans caught sneaking into the United States were shipped quietly to California for processing by immigration officials on Wednesday, a day after protesters blocked buses full of migrant families bound for a Border Patrol station north of San Diego.
The move came as some 1,000 residents of suburban Murrietta, California confronted local officials on Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting over the hundreds of illegal immigrants that the federal government means to process and house in their San Diego-area community.
Protesters on Tuesday blocked three buses carrying the first group of some 140 migrants who were headed for Murrieta, forcing the caravan to turn around and head to another Border Patrol station in San Diego for processing there instead.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in an interview with MSNBC, said he found television images of that demonstration "very disturbing" to watch.
"Because of the recent influx of kids and families crossing the border in the Rio Grande sector, our processing capability in that immediate area is full and we've had to go to other places in the Southwest simply to process these people," Johnson said.
"So when someone interrupts the ability of the border patrol to process a migrant, you're preventing us from conducting basic health screening and the basic background checks on who these people are," he said.
The immigrants are part of a wave of families and unaccompanied minors fleeing strife-torn Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and streaming by the thousands over the U.S.-Mexico border via human smuggling rings.
Most have shown up in Texas, overwhelming detention and processing facilities there and leading U.S. immigration authorities to set up overflow sites in California and other states in the Southwest to help screen and manage the influx.
'SEND WASHINGTON A BILL'
Immigration officials said most of the families headed for California were likely to be released under limited supervision to await deportation proceedings, many to be placed with relatives or friends in other cities or in temporary housing provided by charity groups.
On Wednesday, border protection officials confirmed that a separate group of undocumented families with children were sent to a processing center in El Centro, California, a desert community about 100 miles (160 km) east of San Diego.
Immigration authorities kept a tight lid on details of further transfers, citing security concerns. But sources familiar with the situation told Reuters the second group, which also numbered about 140, arrived in El Centro without incident.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice said authorities were being especially careful to avoid disclosing the whereabouts of the detainees "so that mobs can't go down and root out those people".
Border Patrol spokesman Paul Carr, meanwhile, said undocumented Central American families would continue to be sent to Southern California for processing. "I have not been told that there will be any deviation from the plan," he said.
At the town hall meeting in Murietta, Mayor Alan Long told the angry throng of residents that he had been advised by U.S. officials to expect another group of about 140 immigrants every three days for several weeks.
He blamed U.S. officials for the influx, saying that he intended to "send Washington a big fat bill" for the city's expenses.
Residents filled the meeting hall to capacity and spilled out into a parking lot, carrying signs with slogans like "Illegals today, Jihadists with Nukes tomorrow!!", and one man scuffled with police after they stopped him from walking into the meeting draped with an American flag.
(Writing and additional reporting from Los Angeles by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)