‘We could’ve done a better job’: McAllen feeling heat from respite center decision

The Humanitarian Respite Center on Hackberry Avenue in McAllen is seen Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — The polarized state of politics in America manifested here last week, and while city commissioners expected it, they didn’t have a plan to address the concern expressed by some residents and critics during a now-infamous meeting this week.

On Monday, at a regularly scheduled city commission meeting, Sister Norma Pimentel was in attendance to apply for a permit for the immigrant respite center run by the organization she directs, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Pimentel moved her immigrant relief efforts from a modest, rented downtown building to a larger former nursing home near the corner of Second Street and Hackberry Avenue in McAllen.

This facility measured 16,000 square feet, a much larger space to accommodate the increasing number of asylum-seeking immigrants that federal authorities had been dropping off at the downtown bus station.

The move to the former nursing home occurred in December, and Pimentel was pleased with the space. In January, 43,588 so-called family units were apprehended in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Rio Grande Valley sector, which encompasses South Texas. Many of the immigrants apprehended by law enforcement are seeking asylum in the United States and temporarily stay at the respite center, often times no longer than a day or two.

The new respite center on Hackberry Avenue is in a central McAllen neighborhood, where concern mounted among several residents at Monday’s meeting. They attended to voice their opposition to the city granting the respite center a permit — an otherwise routine process at nearly every city commission meeting.

The stakes and topic, however, are typically not beyond city limits.

“The president’s talk has polarized the country and everyone feels like they have to be firm about immigration issues, even though it’s not a black or white issue,” Mayor Jim Darling said.

Residents voiced firm opposition, and Pimentel pleaded for the necessary services the respite center provides. And not only is the respite center essential, but it’s taken the bulk of responsibility for immigrant care in McAllen for the last five years.

Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora, compelled by arguments from the residents, made a motion that Catholic Charities cease operations at that facility. Commissioner Omar Quintanilla, who said he was also compelled by the testimonies, agreed, and seconded the motion. With only four commissioners in attendance at Monday’s meeting, along with the mayor, just one more vote was needed to push Pimentel out of her respite center.

What exactly would be next for the respite center, or immigrant relief efforts in McAllen, for that matter, was unclear. City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez asked for a clarification: When would this proposed motion take effect? When would the city have to enforce this change?

Commissioners decided that Catholic Charities had 90 days to vacate, and Darling voted with Zamora and Quintanilla. Darling said his decision was based on Commissioner Veronica Whitacre, who voted against Zamora’s proposed motion, wanting Pimentel to vacate the respite center and find a new one sooner than 90 days. Knowing Whitacre would opt for as much, and if Zamora’s motion failed, Darling thought it would be likely that the next proposed motion would require Catholic Charities to vacate quickly.

“I voted that way to give them time,” Darling said of Catholic Charities.

Most of the commissioners, in an unusual move, defended their vote. A couple days removed from the vote, after hearing plenty of negative feedback, Quintanilla and Zamora still defend their votes.

“We have to look at the big picture and take into consideration the citizens who live nearby,” Quintanilla said in an interview on Thursday.

“I feel what I did was right,” Zamora also said in an interview.

However, Darling noted that Quintanilla and Zamora, both elected in 2017, may not have realized the ramifications of their decision.

“I think that’s part of being relatively new on the commission. You’re going to have to make tough decisions, and you got to take a look at everything,” Darling said.

Since 2014, when hundreds of immigrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, Pimentel and Catholic Charities workers began temporarily caring for the immigrants at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church downtown. McAllen provided some assistance.

“If we don’t, they’ll be wandering around town,” Darling said of the city helping with immigrant care.

Catholic Charities has almost exclusively cared for tens of thousands of immigrants since 2014, and that effort continues to this day.

“Without the grace of Catholic Charities, how well off would we be,” Zamora said in the interview.

Both Quintanilla and Zamora said communication could have been better between Catholic Charities and the city. Darling agreed.

“I think we could’ve done a better job as a city,” Darling said.

While Pimentel looks for a new respite center, the city knows the importance of her efforts.

“It’s a partnership we have to continue,” Darling said. “Because the ramifications of them not doing what they’re doing are way worse than any alternative.”

Previous coverage

McAllen orders Catholic Charities to vacate immigrant respite center

Mayor: McAllen will find a new home for immigrant respite center