McAllen continues to absorb financial impact of migration

Missio mayor Armando O'Caña, right, and McAllen mayor Jim Darling greet Donald Trump on Thursday, Jan.10, 2018, in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — McAllen’s top leaders believe their representatives in Washington have not helped. No one in the nation’s capital has, McAllen officials said.

The city of McAllen has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on migration aid since 2014, and the city has hardly been reimbursed by the federal government. The issue began in June 2014, when the U.S. Border Patrol began arresting large groups of Central American migrants in South Texas.

Many of the migrants arrested have sought asylum, so, after an intake period where the Border Patrol provides documents to the asylum-seekers, agents have then dropped off the migrants at McAllen’s downtown bus station. Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, led by Sister Norma Pimentel, has welcomed the immigrants off the buses in McAllen since 2014, providing brief shelter at a respite center. Catholic Charities workers then escort the migrants back to the bus station to board buses to meet with family members or sponsors elsewhere in the United States as they await their immigration court hearing.

It is a gap in the U.S. immigration system that cities like McAllen and organizations like Catholic Charities have to fill. McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has said that if the city, and especially Catholic Charities, were not around to help temporarily care for the immigrants once the authorities dropped them off in the city, then there would be “thousands of people — literally — walking the streets, sleeping in doorways and worse,”

Yet for the immigration assistance McAllen has provided, the federal government hasn’t pitched in much money. They reimbursed the city once, though not after a tussle with the governor’s office. And when thinking about the last five years of the respite center, city officials all hit on a common theme of profound frustration.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is my disappointment from the federal and state governments on this issue,” said McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, when thinking about the last five years of the respite center.

“They just seem unwilling or unable to come up with even modest solutions to this problem,” said McAllen City Attorney Kevin Pagan, who is also the city’s emergency management coordinator, a role that has more or less made Pagan the liaison between city hall and the respite center.

Pagan added: “They just seem completely unwilling to address this problem out of fear that they’re going to be seen as shedding a remotely favorable light on the other side of the political spectrum. If there’s something that’s got some whiff of a good idea, people on the other side are automatically opposed. It’s almost infuriating to me to see the complete lack of meaningful effort by politicians.”

Darling has played a solo greeter for dozens of these politicians over the years, including members of Congress from across the country. During the Trump presidency alone, Darling has interacted with the three highest political officeholders in the country. Last year, Darling welcomed Vice President Mike Pence off Air Force 2 at the McAllen International Airport. In January, it was President Donald Trump’s turn in McAllen. Darling welcomed him off Air Force One.

All were visits about immigration.

“They come down here, they say how they want to fix immigration and they talk about the important issues that happen here,” Darling said.

And they seem to listen. Whether it’s either of the two Texas Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, congressional delegations or the president. Darling has said they all appear to pay attention when they’re in town.

“But everyone went back to Washington and we haven’t solved anything,” Darling said.

Meanwhile, local politics have gotten in the way, too. City commissioners squabbled over the issue, directing city staff to carry out duties without providing them with much of a solution. One city commissioner, John Ingram, who is currently fighting for his seat in a re-election runoff, said he would have won the May general election outright if not for this respite center issue.

But ultimately, the migrants keep coming. And an immigration solution doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

“This is an amazing country, and you can’t tell me we can’t come up with a reasonable solution to a relatively modest immigration problem with all the other things we’ve done over our history,” Pagan said. “This is not an unsolvable problem to fix.”

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