By Paul Ingram
ORACLE Ariz. (Reuters) - Waving U.S. flags and playing patriotic music, dozens of people protested in southern Arizona on Tuesday against the arrival of undocumented immigrant children for processing at a center near the border before being sent home.
In a scene reminiscent of similar protests in California, about 65 demonstrators gathered near the small town of Oracle to complain that the federal government's response to a surge of new arrivals from Central America was putting their communities at risk.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who has been a sharp critic of the Obama administration's border policy, had said about 40 immigrant children were to be bused to an academy north of Tucson, even though residents did not want them there.
"We don't need an additional issue here when we have our hands full with drug smugglers and others who pass through our county," Babeu told the demonstrators.
An official in the office of U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva, who represents the area, said they were told by the Department of Health and Human Services that the bus would not be sent on Tuesday.
The influx of new immigrant arrivals has put a strain on customs and border infrastructure, especially in Texas, and led federal authorities to move some to other states for processing. That has sometimes triggered anger in the communities involved, such as in Murrieta, California.
In the Arizona crowd, demonstrators held signs with slogans praising another Arizona sheriff who has been critical of Washington's border policy, Maricopa County's Joe Arpaio.
Organizers handed out "Junior Deputy for Maricopa Sheriff's office" badges and about a dozen Arizona State Militia members looked on, clad in black shirts and khaki pants. Ron Thompson, an organizer of the anti-illegal immigration protest in Oracle, said residents had to stand up for themselves.
"We're concerned about our community, about the gang members that might be among these kids, and the diseases they might bring," Thompson said.
The new arrivals detained at the border include more than 52,000 children traveling alone from Central America who have been caught at the U.S.-Mexico border since October, twice as many as the same period the year before.
U.S. immigration officials say the crisis is being driven by poverty and gang violence in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, as well as rumors spread by smugglers that children who reach the States will be allowed to stay.
A counter-protest in support of the immigrants took place about 2 miles (3.2 km) away, where some carried placards bearing the word "welcome" in Spanish.
At one point, a five-piece mariachi band approached the other demonstrators and a trumpet player stopped to play "Land of the Free Home of the Brave" in their direction.
Frank Pierson, a 35-year-old Oracle resident, said he did not want his town to be known for turning away kids in need.
"We're bearing witness," Pierson said. "How could anyone be so cruel and venomous to block buses full of children?"
(Reporting by Paul Ingram; Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)