Federal funds to pay majority of temporary immigrant respite center

McAllen downtown buisness owner Lazaro H. Fernandez Jr., addresses the city commissioners about the Respite Center location during a public comments meeting on Tuesday, May 28, 2019 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — The Federal Transit Authority will fund 80% of the 31,000-square-foot building that city commissioners already authorized to purchase, and which will temporarily serve as the new immigrant relief center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

City officials hope federal funding for the building, located across from the downtown bus station in McAllen, will alleviate some residents’ concerns that the city is spending taxpayer money on a federal issue.

The disclosure gave some previously skeptical commissioners some comfort that the federal government was finally assisting the immigration issue that has manifested itself on city streets since 2014. Some downtown business owners and citizens, however, were still concerned about McAllen’s role in the federal immigration process, and not all city commissioners were convinced either.

Commissioners Veronica Whitacre and Omar Quintanilla voted in opposition, while Mayor Jim Darling and Commissioners Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora, Javier Villalobos and Tania Ramirez voted in favor. Commissioner John Ingram, up for re-election in a contested runoff election, was absent.

Quintanilla said later that the federal funding gave him some comfort, and Zamora, after having previously voted with Quintanilla and Whitacre on this issue, flipped on Tuesday.

The FTA, after an in-person meeting with McAllen Transit Director Mario Delgado, told the city that it would fund 80% of a new administrative building so Delgado and his staff would no longer office out of the bus station, but instead at the new building. That new building will serve as the temporary immigrant relief center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley until the organization’s permanent building on 16th Street downtown is completed, which Catholic Charities said would be 18 months from now, city officials said.

This issue of immigration in McAllen has been ongoing since a surge of Central American migrants began crossing the border illegally in 2014, and the issue has reached new heights under President Donald Trump, whose immigration policies have not deterred illegal immigration at the southern border. The numbers of migrants arriving at the southern border in recent months have been the highest since 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In December, after years of operating multiple respite centers in downtown McAllen, Catholic Charities moved to a new, much larger facility on Hackberry Avenue near the corner of Second Street. Following some concerns from neighbors, McAllen city commissioners in February voted that the organization had to move its immigrant relief efforts elsewhere.

In April, commissioners decided that the best location would be a large building near the bus station, which is where federal authorities for years have dropped off asylum-seeking immigrants, leaving city officials and volunteer groups, primarily Catholic Charities, to temporarily assist the migrants before they leave the city for their family or a sponsor while they await their immigration court date.

Now, and once other details are finalized, the city will move ahead and purchase the building for its appraised value likely somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million, city officials said, with the FTA paying for 80% of that and private donations likely funding the rest.

The deal with the FTA is expected to be completed two months from now, according to City Attorney Kevin Pagan’s office. Because of this, Catholic Charities will pay a two-month rent of $31,700, according to the contract.

City officials have until June 15 to make the building ready for Catholic Charities and its hundreds of daily immigrants dropped off by federal authorities, a date imposed by city commissioners in April. After nearly 40 minutes of questions from commissioners, Darling allowed some shouts and disruptions from several people in the audience to overcome him.

At one point, Ramirez, the newest commissioner, disputed City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez’s claim that the city enforces laws at buildings across the city, raising the question that the city would enforce city laws at the new building once it becomes the temporary respite center.

“I don’t think you people — what don’t you understand, we don’t control —” Darling said, before Ramirez chimed in alongside a few shouts from the audience.

Darling believed the deal with the FTA was a positive one for the city, considering the circumstances. Whether it will be remains to be seen.