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Small protests are often invisible. If you pen protesters into a “free-speech zone” they become part of the landscape of an event. Countless protests never even make the news.

Other times, a small protest can catalyze a large discussion.

That’s what happened when a group of people in Murrieta blocked a bus full of Central American youth who had made their way to the United States.

Our national conversation about immigration is like a slow and steady heartbeat through our Republic’s history. It spikes and it recedes. It spikes and it recedes.

But the young Central Americans and the angry response to them presented us with a quandary. Suddenly many reliable perspectives weren’t so reliable. Politicians, who had found refuge from the fire of the immigration debate in easy, large answers (“We must secure the border!”) were jostled by the young people. A secure border wasn’t the problem in this case. The boilerplate response did not suffice.

These kids were seeking security. They were handing themselves over to the security.

The protests and the influx of young people provoked a national conversation we needed to have. In Escondido, it manifest as a typical land-use debate as the federal government desperately sought to commission shelters for the young people. It was a debate about immigration, sure. But it was also about our national identity as a refuge for the world’s oppressed. It was about our own role in the havoc of Central American society and it was about whether the type of kid who could make a trip from Honduras alone was not exactly the type of ambitious young person that built this country into what it is.

But we also had to learn the hard way, again, that laws have unintended consequences. A rule to protect victims of human traffickers – a law that passed unanimously – now ensured that these children could stay here while we heard them out and evaluated the danger they were in.

Often, that means they could stay here, sometimes for years.

The Murrieta protest was only one of the many outbreaks of unrest this year. This country will need to get more accustomed to demonstrations like it – spontaneous, messy, uncomfortable gatherings unrestrained to free speech zones and politeness. We have all the ingredients needed to produce many more of them in coming years.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego this year. Check out the previous story, Ed Harris and Marco Gonzalez: The Voices of the Density Debate, and the next, Jerry Sanders: The Voice of Business.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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