ORACLE — The contentious debate around immigration made its way to this small Arizona town as protesters hoping to block an anticipated bus carrying Central American children briefly clashed with immigrant-rights activists.

Protesters lined up along the road leading to Sycamore Canyon Academy, which was recently identified by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu as the place where the federal government planned to send a group of immigrant minors Tuesday.

Babeu, who was called out by activists for inciting the protest, said all he was trying to do was provide information to the community, something he said the federal government hasn’t been doing.

“If you’re going to send unaccompanied juveniles to another state and another jurisdiction, there’s legitimate concerns that other members of this community have about public safety and public health,” Babeu said. “My concern from a law enforcement perspective is I don’t have an understanding of who these people are.”

Activists rebuffed the sheriff’s claims that the community had anything to worry about from the busload of immigrant youths.

“We don’t believe in that kind of fear-mongering, that now we’re going to be installing gang members down there who are going to knife us in the middle of the night,” said Frank Pierson, head of the parish council at Saint Helen Catholic Church. “They’re trying to scare people into a turnout.”

At the height of the demonstration about 80 people gathered at the protester camp while another 50 people joined the immigrant-activist group. The bus was a no-show.

Signs reading “Take them to the White House” and “Busing illegals go home!” were raised by protesters, along with American flags. Country music blared from a pickup truck and small, plastic stars identifying the wearer as a Junior Deputy for Sheriff Joe Arpaio were passed out.

While the opposing groups originally set up several miles from each other, about 10:30 a.m. a small contingent of immigrant supporters attempted to walk through the protester camp followed by mariachi musicians.

As Ruben Moreno of Mariachi Luz de Luna played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, some protesters and supporters sang along, bringing a brief moment of unity between the groups before isolated shouting matches continued to erupt among the crowd.

Organizers from both sides kept their more vocal members in line and soon protesters and supporters were milling about, keeping a wary distance from each other, before dispersing.

Many protesters said they were worried about gang members coming into the area or that the young immigrants would bring disease. Others said their problem wasn’t with the children, but with government policy in dealing with an influx of immigrant children from Central America.

“I care what these kids are going through,” said Mercy Huss, a native of Tucson. “I think it’s a crime what these politicians are enabling and facilitating by inviting these kids. They put them in the arms of these coyotes who bring them here.”

Huss said that although she understood that immigrants are mostly escaping difficult situations in their home countries, the United States was not equipped to meet their needs.

“I don’t want anybody to suffer, but the world is full of suffering people. We can’t take them all in,” said Huss. “Our ship is sinking, our kids are starving, we’ve got families in crisis, we’ve got people out of work — what do we say to them?”

Activists on the other side of the issue said the country should welcome the immigrant children with open arms and recognize that the situations in their home countries are hard to understand for most Americans.

“We don’t know, we’re spoiled. We don’t know what it’s like to be persecuted, to witness the death and destruction that these people have seen,” said Steve Brown, a Vietnam veteran from Oracle. “These are parents looking for a better life and safety for their children. I totally sympathize with their plight.”

As protesters gathered Tuesday, the Border Patrol released new numbers on immigrant families and children apprehended during the latest fiscal year. From October through the end of June, 55,420 so-called family units have been caught at the Southwest border, a nearly 500 percent increase from the 9,350 detained in the previous fiscal year.

Most of the apprehensions occurred in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

In Tucson the number increased to 3,117 as of June, compared with 2,130 during the same period last year.

Contact reporter Luis F. Carrasco at or 807-8029. On Twitter: @lfcarrasco