With dozens of undocumented immigrant children expected to arrive Tuesday at a secluded boys camp in the Arizona mountains, protesters gathered to greet the federal buses in a potential replay of this month's demonstrations in Murrieta, California — with the support of the local sheriff.
Citing "whistleblowers" at the Department of Homeland Security, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement and at a public forum that 40 to 60 youths were expected Tuesday at Sycamore Canyon Academy in Oracle, near Tucson.
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, said Tuesday he'd gotten a one-line message from the Department of Health and Human Services saying no buses would be arriving Tuesday. A similar scene unfolded in early July in Southern California, when demonstrators gathered to protest the expected arrival of undocumented immigrants in Murrieta — only to have no buses show up.
Ike Shipman, executive director of Sycamore Canyon academy — a state-licensed private facility that houses and treats youths at risk of delinquency or substance abuse — confirmed Monday that the academy would be housing "a small number of unaccompanied youth from Central and South America."
Shipman told NBC News by email that the academy wasn't taking a position on the immigration debate. The youths are being accepted for temporary housing pending placements with sponsoring families or deportation because "our mission is to improve the lives of youth, and we will continue to fulfill our mission by focusing on our work with children," he said.
As many as 500 demonstrators were expected to be there Tuesday morning to protest the children's arrival, said Robert Skiba, a 50+-year resident of Oracle who's organizing the protest.
Tuesday's demonstration is "going to draw a lot of people," Skiba told NBC News, saying he strongly objected to the "secrecy" of the arrangement.
Residents didn't learn of the undocumented immigrants' placement from the federal government. They learned about it through the statement from Babeu, the local sheriff, who objected that "we don't need unaccompanied juveniles from Central America being flown into Arizona compliments of President Obama."
Skiba told NBC News on Monday: "We're supposed to be having a transparent government, but this deal was cut in the cover of darkness. They never offered to have a public meeting and answer questions.
But even if federal authorities had reached out to him and kept him apprised every step of the way, Skiba said, "I don't think there's anything that would allow us to say this is a good idea."
Oracle is a town of about 3,700 people adjacent to Oracle State Park, with Mount Lemmon towering majestically almost 2 miles high in the background. It's a "pristine, beautiful scenic area" where the government plans to "jam these 40 kids into a very small, confined space," Skiba said.
"Who knows who these boys are, whether they're choirboys or MS-13 gang members?" Skiba said, referring to the infamous Central American Mara Salvatrucha gangs that traffic in drugs, arms and human beings.
"We've got to close that border and keep this kind of thing from happening," he said. "If I was a jihadi terrorist and I wanted to get into America, this is the way to do it, because there's no one watching the store."
The planned demonstration is reminiscent of this month's angry protests in Murrieta, California, where protesters waited for hours in the blistering sun for buses after Customs and Border Protection said it might transfer some undocumented immigrants from facilities in Texas to Murrieta. The buses were blocked by the protesters and rerouted to a U.S.-Mexican border station.
Federal facilities, many of them in Texas, have been swamped by more than 50,000 unaccompanied children who have poured across the border since October — a human tide that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said means the government needs even more temporary detention space to bring about "faster, more efficient removals" of undocumented immigrant children.
"We're sending the message that most unaccompanied kids who come to this country will not qualify for any form of humanitarian relief," Johnson told reporters Monday in Washington.
"The message that I and others have been sending is that our borders are not open to illegal migration," he said. "We will send you back."