By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A Southern California city could find itself at the center of a nationwide debate over illegal immigration on Tuesday evening when officials there are expected to reject a bid by the U.S. government to open a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children.
The vote by the Planning Commission in Escondido, some 20 miles north of San Diego, comes in response to a surge in children from Central America caught entering the United States, inundating federal processing facilities and creating a backlash in border-state communities.
On Monday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law aimed at reducing deportations for immigrants convicted of minor crimes in the state.
The legislation reduces the maximum penalty for misdemeanors in the state to 364 days in the county jail instead of 365, because, under federal law, immigrants sentenced to a year in jail or prison are eligible for deportation.
It marks the latest immigrant-friendly move by California since comprehensive immigration reform stalled at the federal level last year.
In Los Angeles last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he was working with local charities to find temporary refuge for some of the children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua as they await further immigration or deportation facilities
But some California communities and their elected officials have reacted with anger to the flood of migrants.
In Murietta, some 30 miles northwest of Escondido, angry protesters have blocked buses full of suspected illegal immigrants from reaching a processing center there, prompting the U.S. Border Patrol to at least temporarily suspend the operation.
In Escondido, planning commissioners tentatively voted last month to reject a bid by federal authorities to open a shelter for migrant children there amid angry opposition from residents.
The commission was expected to make that vote final during a meeting on Tuesday evening, despite pleas from immigrant rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union to reverse course.
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.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Beech)