By Marty Graham SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A Southern California city will put 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 planning commissioners in Escondido, 20 miles north of San Diego, comes amid a surge in children from Central America caught entering the United States, overwhelming federal processing facilities, threatening to swamp immigration courts and creating a backlash in border-state communities. Escondido commissioners voted tentatively last month to reject a bid by federal authorities to open the shelter following angry opposition from residents. They are expected to make that decision final during a meeting on Tuesday evening, despite pleas from immigrant rights groups. "We have a legal and moral duty to treat these children with compassion," David Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said at a news conference on Tuesday morning. "There may be serious legal problems with the way Escondido has handled this." Immigration rights activists plan a march through Escondido before the planning commission meeting, calling the decision to reject a shelter racist and out of step with a community where nearly 50 percent of residents are Latino. "We have had a long fight in Escondido. We have seen the racism, the anti-immigrant feeling of the city council and the police, the injustice handed to us because we are brown," said Alejandra Ramos-Almaraz, a member of the immigrant rights group Fuerza. The vote comes one day after California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill aimed at reducing deportations for legal immigrants convicted of minor crimes. The law 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. And 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. Los Angeles-based activists on Tuesday urged President Barack Obama not to strip away protections offered to Central American child migrants under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. But in Murrieta, 30 miles northwest of Escondido, protesters have blocked buses full of suspected illegal immigrants from reaching a processing center there, prompting the U.S. Border Patrol to suspend the operation. 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 in San Diego, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Dana Solomon and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Beech)
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