BY JIM DARLING | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR
Over the past several months, much attention has been focused on the city of McAllen and the situation at the border. Unfortunately, much of the information, including media reports, regarding the situation in our city have conveyed misleading or, in some cases, completely false information.
The city has been dealing with this immigration situation since June 2014. At that time, due to large numbers of individuals from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S., the federal facilities (Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others) could not handle the influx. Some of these individuals were released by the federal government at the McAllen bus terminal in downtown McAllen. Then, as now, these individuals were “family units” consisting of one or more adult relatives and one or more minors, traveling together as a family to seek refuge in the United States. Then, as now, these folks are released by the federal government with full permission to travel throughout the United States, to come and go within the country (and our city) as they please.
With these large numbers of people (in 2014) being left at our bus station, we, the city of McAllen, quickly discovered that they did not have complete instructions on how to travel, they were often hungry and thirsty, and many lacked basic necessities, such as a change of clothing and a location where they could clean themselves. Although they planned to leave the area and travel to meet up with relatives, some were not able to connect to their transportation for a day or so. Many had been on an arduous journey for weeks.
Almost immediately, local non-profit agencies, such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and local churches and individuals offered their assistance.
This was the birth of the “respite” center in McAllen. It began in the parish hall at Sacred Heart church and was staffed mainly by Catholic Charities assisted by the other people and groups mentioned above. Initially, the city did provide assistance as well, including transportation to and from the bus terminal, some emergency type bathroom facilities, etc.
This was done because assisting the private sector humanitarians was much less stress on city resources than handling it all ourselves.
The city immediately reached out for, and received assistance from, other local entities. We also immediately requested reimbursement from the state of Texas and the federal government. We believed then, as we do now, this situation was created by the federal government’s asylum process and the federal government’s inability to process this number of refugees without releasing them in our city.
Over the ensuing months, with the tireless work of Catholic Charities and the other volunteer, humanitarian agencies, the city’s assistance in the process was reduced to almost zero over time. Nevertheless, we continued (and continue) to seek reimbursement from State and federal government for the taxpayer resources used.
The “respite center” was relocated first to Beaumont Avenue and, more recently, to a facility on Hackberry Avenue donated for that purpose by a patron. Due to concerns of the neighbors, the City Commission voted to discontinue the respite center activities there and look for a new location. At its meeting on April 22, the City Commission voted to relocate the respite center activities to a building immediately across from the bus terminal.
Recently, starting in late 2018 and continuing in 2019, the numbers of individuals seeking asylum or refugee status in the U.S. has increased dramatically. As in 2014, the federal government’s existing facilities (and systems) have proven inadequate to handle the number of people entering and this, in turn, has increased the number of “family unit” individuals being taken (by the federal government) to the respite centers. The number has exceeded 1,000 persons per day in some instances.
It is the city’s hope that by moving the respite center closer to the bus terminal and continuing to work with the federal government and the non-profit humanitarian groups, these folks can be assisted more efficiently and will continue their travel to other points in the country.
Some information disseminated about the situation I’ve described has been misleading or just plain false. First, the individuals (including children) at the respite centers are there with the permission and blessing of the federal government. It is, in fact, the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement transporting these individuals to that location and providing them with travel documents.
Second, nothing about this situation makes the city of McAllen a so-called “sanctuary city.” The city of McAllen fully cooperates with, and enforces the laws of, the United States and the state of Texas. The people at the respite centers in McAllen have been placed in the asylum process by the U.S. government, not the city of McAllen.
Third, the city has, from the beginning of this situation in 2014, sought to minimize the impact on its citizens and its resources. Our primary concern and responsibility is the health and welfare of the citizens of McAllen, as well as those who visit and do business here. That will continue to be our paramount concern. Providing some limited assistance to the organizations dealing with the humanitarian needs of these individuals is consistent with that goal; doing nothing is not.
Can you imagine a situation where literally thousands, including many children, are dropped off by the federal government to our downtown area with no place to sleep, nothing to eat or drink and no restroom or hygiene facilities? That is the scenario we are trying to prevent.
We understand that no one wants the “center” in their neighborhood or area. But we as city officials have to deal with this situation that we didn’t ask for. That means finding a location for the “center” somewhere that has the least impact from an economic, logistics and disruptive standpoint and is readable available.
The city of McAllen will continue to urge the federal government to fix this problem, to take responsibility for those it is releasing into our city, and to reimburse the taxpayers of McAllen for the resources we have been forced to expend because of their actions.
We appreciate all of our partners in this effort.
Jim Darling is mayor of the city of McAllen.