Joe Mathews: Murrieta must overcome shunning of border kids

To: The people of Murrieta

Re: Recent damage to your global reputation

You can still be “The Future of Southern California,” as your city’s motto promises, but it won’t be easy.

Murrieta, incorporated in 1991, is one of the fastest-growing places in the state. Your population has quadrupled to more than 100,000 over the past quarter century. And you’ve embraced a growth strategy based on encouraging people around the world to invest there.

But then came the Central American refugee crisis – and the self-destructive decision by more than a few of your citizens to immerse your city in one of the country’s divisive, hateful political debates.

The scene outside your U.S. Border Patrol station introduced Murrieta to much of the world. It was an ugly greeting. A small but nasty group of protesters blocked the entrance for buses carrying refugees, reported to be women and children, and the Border Patrol decided to turn the buses around. Comments by local politicians opposing the processing of refugees in your town, and outright racist statements by citizens at a town meeting, cemented an image of Murrieta as a hateful place.

That image is, of course, unfair. Many of the protesters weren’t from Murrieta. The media-amplified comments of a few people shouldn’t color our judgment of the 107,000 living in your relatively diverse community. But at the same time, the lack of aggressive pushback by civic leaders against the protests raises legitimate questions not merely about the heart of the town, but about your collective brain. The last few weeks suggest that too many of you don’t know your own town or understand its interests.

Because to know Murrieta is to understand that there are few places in California as dependent on having a welcoming reputation.

Yours is in many ways a city of refugees. You are mostly from somewhere else; you came to Murrieta to escape coastal California’s high housing prices, or crime in other communities, or problems in your home countries (14 percent of Murrietans are foreign-born, and 23 percent speak a language other than English at home). For now, continued population growth is an imperative for your local economy. Murrieta’s biggest employers – the school district, the Southwest Healthcare System and big retailers such as Target, Walmart and Home Depot – all need more people to succeed. Your location – 80 miles from both Mexico and the Port of Los Angeles – should help you benefit from expanded global trade.

None of this is news to the more enlightened among you. Your city’s website features a video boasting that three of Murrieta’s City Council members and two top administrators have lived overseas.

And ironically, given the recent events, your economic development relies heavily on attracting foreign investors. With bank financing hard to secure and redevelopment eliminated by the state, your city turned to the federal government’s EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which grants green cards to foreigners who invest between $500,000 and $1 million here.

Yes, that’s right: What would the anti-immigrant crowd think of paying for development by giving legal status to foreign investors? Particularly if they found out that they’d been supporting these 20-plus investors from China and other Asian countries by buying organic local produce at the market in the Olivewood development across the street from your City Hall?

In this context, the lack of a quick, decisive response to the anti-refugee protests looks like self-sabotage. To restore your essential reputation for openness, you need to go beyond apologies. You must make clear to the world that Murrieta unequivocally empathizes with the refugees, wants protesters seeking to score cheap political points off a humanitarian tragedy to stay away, and supports the authorities doing what they must do without interference.

Remember: Just as it is unfair to judge Murrieta by its least welcoming voices, it is unfair to make blanket statements about those who come across our borders. All Californians should treat these refugees with respect, and allow them to have their cases heard. That’s not merely the humanitarian response; it’s also the adult one. And your city is now 23 years old.