McALLEN, June 26 - McAllen Mayor Jim Darling is reluctant to declare a state of emergency related to the large influx of immigrants coming into his city for fear that it would deter potential investors and visitors.
But, at the same time, he knows that he may have to do so in order to get reimbursement from the federal government for the money McAllen is spending on humanitarian efforts related to the immigrants.
Discussion on whether to declare a state of emergency was discusses at a McAllen city commission meeting on Monday. City commissioners voted unanimously to ratify whatever decision Darling ultimately makes.
Discussion on the influx of what are mostly Central American immigrants was also discussed at a Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council board meeting in Weslaco on Wednesday. At the meeting, Edinburg City Councilman Homer Jasso, Jr., a former Border Patrol agent, cautioned against Rio Grande Valley cities spending too much money on the issue.
At the McAllen meeting, Mayor Darling said it is important to quell unsubstantiated rumors, such as that undocumented immigrants bringing with them communicable diseases. “There is no emergency from the standpoint of public health,” Darling said. He also said he wants to centralize public information given to the media, so that different people in authority are not saying different things.
McAllen is in the national and international spotlight right now because Border Patrol is dropping off thousands of undocumented families at the McAllen bus station and allowing them to travel beyond the checkpoints to be with family in other parts of the country. These families are then expected to appear before an immigration judge at a later date.
In his remarks, Darling addressed the issue of perceptions; that people in other parts of the United States might think McAllen is not a safe place to be.
“We get a lot of bad publicity because of different things, obesity, because of the problems in Mexico and it being dangerous. I think if you declare something a public emergency that has a tendency to not be looked at very favorably across the country. Its sensationalism from a press standpoint,” Darling said.
Right now, the City of McAllen has spent about $15,000 to assist in humanitarian efforts related to immigrants being dropped off at the McAllen bus station. Catholic Charities RGV is taking the lead on this effort, providing hot meals, showers and a change of clothes at nearby Sacred Heart Church. The City of McAllen is assisting that effort.
“I don’t think it is an emergency. We would like to be paid for that (assistance). We did not cause this situation. I think it would be appropriate for the federal government to pay us back for this. But declaring an emergency at this point… would be overkill for the situation that is presented to us,” Darling said.
Another concern for the City of McAllen, Darling said, is sustainability. What if the influx of immigrants continues unabated for many months? “It is a stress on the volunteer medical people. It is a stress on Sacred Heart Church, on Catholic Charities. I think what we are trying to turn this into is whether it is sustainable,” Darling said.
Darling added that he does not want to get into a political debate about the immigration policies of the United States. He offered this analogy: “If I have a real nice house in the neighborhood a lot of people may want to live in it. But I cannot accommodate all of the people that want to come to my house. At some point I have to protect my family because I won’t have a house left over. We are a land of opportunity and there are millions of people that want to come here. We just have to have a responsible process for that or you are going to have a situation that we are in right now. Hopefully they will resolve that but in the meantime our bus station is kind of ground zero for that small segment of what is going on with the immigration situation.”
Kevin Pagan is city attorney for McAllen and also the local emergency management coordinator. He said that under Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code, Mayor Darling could declare a state of emergency. However, he said he is not recommending this.
Pagan said if one drives around McAllen “you would not know there is a problem at all.” The only way of knowing there is a problem, he said, is by visiting the bus station and the nearby church. From a humanitarian standpoint the situation “would be classified as a crisis,” Pagan said.
Under the government code, If Darling does declare a state of emergency, city commissioners must soon thereafter ratify that declaration, Pagan said. “My recommendation is to authorize the mayor, if he deems it appropriate, to go ahead and issue the request for what I am going to call a limited declaration of an emergency or a disaster in the sense of the humanitarian aspect in order to access the resources we might be able to recapture from the other level of governments,” Pagan said. “As the EMC I am not recommending he do that but I do think it would be prudent of this commission to ratify the mayor’s authority to do that, so either if the situation escalates unexpectedly or if we continue to get resistance from our partners at the other levels that we can take the steps necessary to address that. That is my recommendation.”
City commissioners voted unanimously to do this.
Commissioner John Ingram then asked Darling if he had heard how long this influx of immigrants might go on for. Darling said he has been told the situation is not expected to change very much in the short term. “They are going to continue to come over,” Darling said. He pointed out that at the moment the immigrants being dropped off in McAllen are in transit. He said he hopes that if the federal government decides to build a semi-permanent location for all the undocumented children being captured, that they get in touch with the school district first. “At the moment it is very transitory but it could be otherwise,” Darling said.
Meanwhile, at an LRGVDC meeting, Edinburg City Councilman Jasso cautioned against cities giving up too many resources to the immigration problem.
“I worked for the Border Patrol for 11 years and this is not a problem that has just started. This is a problem that has been going on for years and years. I just want to caution everybody as to how much in resources we offer because the more and more we give, the more and more they will expect. Do we need to help the kids? Absolutely, but this is a problem the federal government needs to address,” Jasso said.
Manuel Cruz, the LRGVDC’s director of homeland security, said his department is assisting Pagan. He pointed out that local governments need to be prepared because it is now the hurricane season.
San Juan Mayor Pro Tem Armando “Mando” Garza agreed with Jasso that local governments need to be cautious. However, he said local governments do have a responsibility to do something.” Garza said the LRGVDV should “continue to put pressure on the government. I do not see a solution in the near term. If we are hit by a hurricane they (the immigrants) will be impacted too.”