From family separations to catastrophic flooding in many parts of the region, the Rio Grande Valley was at the center of critical news events for much of 2018, and often became the setting for national debate.
Perhaps no story drew more attention to the Valley than the separation of immigrant children from their families at the border, which came amid President Donald Trump’s continued attempts to implement immigration policies that would discourage crossings. It proved more problematic, however, when the Trump administration began to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy in May that prosecutes those who “cross the border unlawfully.”
This proved taxing on government agencies’ already-limited resources to address the flow of people illegally crossing the border, with detention centers in McAllen and Brownsville struggling to accommodate the thousands of families who had been separated as a result of the policy. And it spawned a firestorm of national media coverage that attracted celebrities, pundits and politicians, including First Lady Melania Trump, to the Valley to observe the facilities, and in many cases to show support for the immigrant children who had been separated from their parents.
In the end, the policy was unsuccessful in its goal to stymie the flow of immigrants crossing the border.
The Valley also had to contend with an actual storm in June, when a two-day rain event slammed local communities with disastrous flooding, requiring dramatic rescue attempts — including high water rescues — by first responders for residents left stranded in their cars, houses and businesses.
The scope of impact, many believe, proved even greater than Hurricane Dolly’s effects in 2008. In fact, such was the extent of damage that President Trump issued a federal disaster declaration for the Valley, making way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide relief.
A $190 million bond election proposed by Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 was subsequently approved by voters in November, and is designed to implement drainage improvements that will benefit more than 50,000 homes in Weslaco, Mercedes, Mission, McAllen, Palmview, Edinburg, Edcouch, La Villa and Alamo.
The competitiveness of the race helped spur one of the largest voter turnouts during a midterm election in the area, which has long been plagued with low participation at the polls.
There was also the case of now-former state-District Judge Rudy Delgado falling under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes for favorable rulings, charges which earned him a very public arrest and his resignation from the 92nd district court, but were not enough to stop his election bid for the 13th Court of Appeals from being successful despite not campaigning.
In other 2018 news, voter fraud allegations swirled in both Edinburg and Mission, where arrests and charges have been formally filed in the former, and a mayoral election declared void in the latter.
‘The Great June Flood of 2018’ levels local cities
In June, portions of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties sustained major flooding caused by storms that dumped more than 18 inches of rain in portions of the region. Emergency management officials compared the damaged to the amount seen during Hurricane Dolly in 2008.
In Hidalgo County, the flooding damaged businesses, homes, schools and county and local government property. In between Weslaco and Mercedes, up to 18 inches of rain fell. Since storms dumped inches of rain within hours, the local, county and federal infrastructure could not handle the brunt.
As a result, 20,000 residences and businesses in Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo counties were affected, according to the National Weather Service in Brownsville. Flooding inside homes and businesses began on June 20 and in some parts lasted a few days. In July, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a disaster, followed by President Donald Trump granting the disaster declaration.
In response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved individual aid, for homeowners and renters affected by the flood. FEMA, however, denied providing public assistance funds to local and county governments, which had to foot the bill to repair major damage.
Hidalgo and Cameron counties sustained a $55 million impact to county and city property collectively, according to emergency managers. The federal government denied providing monetary assistance, prompting the Rio Grande Valley congressional delegation and both U.S. Senators to send a letter calling for a reassessment, if necessary, but county and local leaders speculated governments here would not receive financial help to repair damages.
In November, voters approved a $190 drainage district bond, which will ultimately result in an increase in its property tax rate by 3-cents per $100 property valuation to pay for 37 drainage projects through the county. The city of Weslaco will likely call for its own bond election in May.
Ground zero for Trump’s polarizing immigration policies
Immigration was at the forefront of headline news in the Valley in 2018, as the Trump administration continued its efforts to enforce policies that disproportionately affected the area.
Picking up where it left off in the fall of 2017 with the rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Trump administration enacted a “zero tolerance” policy beginning in April that sought to “prioritize the prosecution” of all illegal entry and reentry immigration cases.
Now-former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo in the spring directed at each U.S. Attorney’s Office along the southwest border, to include the southern districts of California and Texas, ordering the implementation of the policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents, many of whom to this date have yet to be reunited with their families.
Months later, just before the November midterm elections, the Valley became center stage once again as President Trump deployed U.S. military to help patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, further militarizing the Valley landscape in anticipation of a migrant caravan from Central America that never materialized.
As 2018 closes, federal contractors are now in the beginning stages of surveying lands for the purposes of building physical wall barriers along the border, and on some of the Valley’s most historic and environmentally sensitive areas, including the La Lomita Chapel, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen State National Park — all in Mission.
Construction for Trump’s has been scheduled to begin in February, despite the collective opposition of many living in the Valley.
District judge arrested, indicted, resigns, wins appellate court race
Longtime 93rd state District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado resigned April 30, on his 65th birthday and the day his state retirement benefits kicked in. His decision to step down from the bench in the midst of his term came after his February arrest and indictment on federal bribery charges, which stem from allegations that a local attorney paid him more than $6,000 in cash bribes dating as far back as 2008 in exchange for favorable rulings.
Delgado is scheduled to face a Houston jury in February. The most serious of the eight charges he faces carry sentences of up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted. Noe Reyes, the attorney turned government informant, pleaded guilty to one count of federal bribery in May and is set for sentencing later next year.
The embattled judge’s resignation wasn’t the end of his judicial career, however. He decided to keep his name on the ballot for a seat on the 13th Court of Appeals, and narrowly won 50.35 percent of the vote in the November election — a 3,220-vote margin of victory over Republican Jaime Tijerina. Delgado hasn’t commented publicly on whether he will take the oath of office come January, but if he does, the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct may suspend him from office until his trial is complete.
Election of new county judge signals change in local politics
The year marked Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia’s final term in office, as he decided not to run for a fourth term. Former McAllen commissioner Richard Cortez, who also once served as the city’s mayor, will be sworn in as the new county judge on Tuesday, Jan. 1. Cortez defeated former county judge Eloy Pulido in the March Democratic Primary and went on to claim victory over Republican Jane Cross in November’s general election.
Garcia’s final year in office saw the county break ground on its new courthouse. Construction began in earnest in September, and the seven-story building is scheduled to be complete in 2021. Until then, residents can expect limited parking options and traffic detours around the building for the next year.
Garcia drew criticism for moving forward on the $150 million project without voter approval, but told The Monitor in a recent interview, “We had an inadequate facility and we needed to get involved in constructing a new facility. And (I) made sure I stayed long enough to get it done.”
US Senate race provides glimpse of region’s potential political clout
Beto O’Rourke may have lost his underdog race for U.S. senator, but in doing so attracted people to his South Texas rallies like political observers had never done before. O’Rourke, who made it no secret that he visited all 254 Texas counties while unsuccessfully campaigning to unseat incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, attended rallies between Brownsville and Mission during his many stops in the Valley, and participated in a town hall forum with CNN at the McAllen Performing Arts Center.
Cruz, who defeated O’Rourke by 2.5 points, the slimmest margin in a statewide general election in decades, did not attend the forum.
While O’Rourke’s future is unclear, there’s a lot of national buzz that he will run for president in 2020. Democrats are hoping O’Rourke’s momentum carries more voter turnout in the Valley, a problem long associated with the region.
More South Texas voters did cast ballots in November than they have for a midterm election in a generation, much of which owed to the senate race, but whether that turnout can become a trend remains in question, and so, too, does the region’s place in the national political conversation should the road to the presidency go through the border. The race between O’Rourke and Cruz, which captivated the nation at one point, provided a glimpse of as much.
Edinburg voter fraud arrests
Fifteen people were arrested this year on voter fraud charges stemming from the November 2017 Edinburg municipal election, in which Richard Molina unseated Richard Garcia as mayor. Allegations of voter fraud tainted the election from the get-go, but it wasn’t until May that the Texas Attorney General’s Office, in conjunction with the Texas Rangers and Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, made the first round of arrests.
The second round came in November, with 10 people being arrested in a two-day span. Those charged are alleged to have changed their voter registration information to be able to vote in the city’s election, despite living outside Edinburg’s municipal limits.
More arrests are expected next year, with many speculating high-profile individuals may find themselves charged. The mayor, meanwhile, has decried the allegations against his campaign, and in May released a video accusing members of the Palacios family, a long-time fixture in the city’s political scene, of voting illegally for years. He alleges former Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Palacios filed a complaint with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, prompting the AG’s investigation, because of a “personal vendetta” against him.
From the polls to the courtroom, Mission mayoral election brought drama
The 2018 mayoral election in Mission was historic for more reasons than the unseating of a longtime office holder.
While it produced Armando O’Caña’s surprise victory during the election’s subsequent June runoff, which marked the end of Norberto “Beto” Salinas’ 20-year tenure as mayor, it also spawned drama and scandal after Salinas filed an election contest alleging illegal vote harvesting and bribery by his successor’s campaign.
After a trial that lasted for less than two weeks, during which voters testified to such the aforementioned crimes, a judge ruled the June runoff void, requiring a new election to be held.
O’Caña and his attorneys immediately appealed the decision to the 13th Court of Appeals, where the case currently sits. Whether a new trial will be held will be determined once the appeals process has been exhausted. In the meantime, O’Caña remains mayor of Mission.
Trade community breathes sigh of relief after new NAFTA deal reached
NAFTA got a new name in 2018, but don’t let it signal too much more than that
Now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, or the USMCA, most people are simply referring to it as “the new NAFTA,” this after several rounds of negotiations between national leaders of the three countries.
The agreement was updated in hopes of increasing U.S. competitiveness, but many in the South Texas trade community are expecting big changes.
“I don’t expect great changes,” said a border economics professor. “But the big takeaway is the reduction of this cloud of uncertainty.”
And therein lies the story: After much anxiety over the past year regarding the future of NAFTA, which is responsible for transforming the Valley’s economy, the local trade community had its fears of the agreement’s end, which in hindsight may have seemed greatly exaggerated, pacified.