McAllen’s city manager thought he had a creative immigration proposal; commissioners weren’t so sure

The front of a building the will be the new respite center, one block north of the McAllen bus station .(Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez thought he had a “slam dunk” deal: The federal government had agreed to pay for the majority of a new building in downtown McAllen that would serve as a temporary immigrant respite center.

Some city commissioners, after concerns about spending McAllen taxpayer money on immigration, which they’ve said is a federal issue, questioned components of the deal and some stipulations surrounding the contract with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Catholic Charities is the nonprofit organization that has primarily provided humanitarian aid to migrants in South Texas since 2014 after federal authorities released them in McAllen.

Rodriguez and city commissioners had discussed the deal in recent months during private executive sessions; Tuesday evening was the first time they did so publicly. Three commissioners and the mayor voted in favor of the deal and two commissioners voted against.

District 5 Commissioner John Ingram was absent.

Prior to the vote, there were shouts from the audience at Tuesday’s city commission meeting and nearly 40 minutes of misunderstandings and skepticism from commissioners, including one commissioner failing to understand the capacity of the new respite center and another laughing that he was asking so many questions with the hope that he could have a night of sleep before making a decision.

It was a series of questioning on an unusual issue, but one that McAllen has had to take up for years: How to deal with federal immigration policies playing out in the city?

On Tuesday, Rodriguez had an answer in the form of the Federal Transit Authority agreeing to pay for 80% of a new building adjacent to the downtown McAllen bus station that would served as the immigrant relief facility that Catholic Charities would run until the organization’s permanent respite center that will be built in downtown McAllen, with an expected completion date of 18 months from now.

Once that Catholic Charities’ facility opens in 2020 or later, the building adjacent to the bus station will serve as the administration offices for McAllen’s transit department. Currently, McAllen transit administrators office out of the bus station in cramped quarters.

“Think about it: If there’s no respite center in McAllen, by default, the McAllen metro station becomes the respite center,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday, adding that the FTA sees the situation similarly. “And we would just have to deal with it, and that’s the kind of chaotic situation we’ve been trying to avoid.”

What’s more, Rodriguez said, if a private donor is interested in paying for the rest of the building that the FTA is paying 80% of.

But Rodriguez makes recommendations for and answers to the mayor and six city commissioners, and some of them weren’t so sure about this deal. Despite the measure eventually passing, commissioners were skeptical, and in a couple instances for reasons that Rodriguez couldn’t answer. Commissioner Veronica Whitacre asked him about the number of restrooms and showers, to which Rodriguez replied there would be 22 bathrooms.

“And showers?” Whitacre said.

Those would have to be built, Rodriguez said.

“And who’s paying for that?” Whitacre said.

“We will,” Rodriguez said.

“And do we have an estimate?” Whitacre said.

“Yes,” he said

“Can you disclose it?” she said.

“I don’t have that today,” he said.

Rodriguez gets questions from commissioners all the time, but perhaps none about as polarizing a topic as this.

“They hear from constituents, I don’t know how many, but they hear from them, they weigh all of that,” he said.

Commissioners also asked about health precautions, considering an influenza outbreak at the Border Patrol’s intake facility in south McAllen that caused the agency to temporarily halt intake last week. One Guatemalan teenager died in Border Patrol custody in Weslaco earlier this month with the same illness, raising concerns about health conditions at facilities where migrants are held.

At the current immigrant relief center on Hackberry Avenue near Second Street where, since December, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has run operations out of a 16,000-square-foot former nursing home, much larger than any other facility the organization has used to temporarily care for migrants since 2014.

But in February, commissioners voted to remove Catholic Charities from operating the immigrant respite center out of that building on Hackberry Avenue without a plan of where migrants dropped off in McAllen would go temporarily.

Now, after imposing a June 15 deadline for Catholic Charities to vacate their current facility, commissioners are dealing with their decision, and city staff has scrambled to meet the deadline. Whether they will is unclear, just like much of the attempted problem-solving surrounding immigration in McAllen has been hazy.

And even though commissioners were skeptical when they heard about the deal for the new building, Rodriguez’s reaction was a bit different. When Transit Director Mario Delgado proposed the idea, Rodriguez wasn’t so sure the FTA would be on board.

“Much to our surprise, they said, ‘yeah, that makes sense,’” Rodriguez said. “I was like, ‘wow!’”

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