McALLEN, RGV – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar has blasted the Obama administration over its handling of the Other Than Mexican immigration surge.

The Laredo Democrat says the White House has no idea what is going on in the Rio Grande Valley and is basically treating immigrant families from Central American countries as though they were Cubans escaping the communists.

“Under the Cuban policy, if a Cuban set foot on U.S. soil they were in. What we are doing, de facto, is the same thing with the Central Americans,” Cuellar said. “The Administration does not understand. They don’t get it. They don’t understand what is happening down here in our area.”

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Cuellar ran through the numbers. He said the Valley is now the No. 1 crossing area for immigrants in the United States. “It used to be Tucson, Arizona, but Tucson is now No. 2, the Valley is No. 1,” Cuellar said. “Every day there are over 1,200 individuals coming across, 300 to 400 of those are kids with no parents. Over 70 percent are from Central America – Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala.”

Cuellar said he found out just a couple of days ago about a startling policy decision: that Border Patrol is treating “family unit” immigrants far differently to the apprehension of individuals. He said “family units” were basically being allowed to scatter into the community.

Mothers and children from Central America said they were receiving their first meal in four days, thanks to the Salvation Army in McAllen. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Mothers and children from Central America said they were receiving their first meal in four days, thanks to the Salvation Army in McAllen. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

“What I found out is that if you are coming in and you are Other Than Mexican, if you are an adult you will usually be kept in detention until there is a hearing. If you are a child they are going to put you in one of those facilities that Health and Human Services has, those run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, like the one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. They are held there until a family member comes and gets them and then they are released into our community,” Cuellar said.

“But, if you are family unit – a mother or father with kids – then there is really no place except a place in the northeast where they keep these folks. What happens is they are released with a piece of paper to show up (later in court). I just found out that in the last 60 days they have released over 8,000 of those ‘family units’ in the Rio Grande Valley. In Laredo, in the last two weeks, they have released 2,300 individuals; in Del Rio, about 1,000 in the last 30 days or so. We estimate that probably so far this year they have released on our border 30,000 to 40,000 of those family units. I do not know if the community knows this.”

Cuellar said he is not blaming Border Patrol for this situation. He said the blame lies with those creating the policies in Washington, D.C.

“It is not the fault of Border Patrol. It is the policies from Washington, people that just don’t understand the border. If they (Washington bureaucrats) want to release those people, give us your backyards and we will be happy to put them in your backyard if you feel that it is okay to put them in our backyards,” Cuellar said.

“I am calling on the Administration to stop this policy immediately because if you do not send a message it is going to continue, the folks are going to continue coming because they already know that if you come in with a ‘family unit’ you are going to be released. If you know they are not going to deport you they are creating an incentive to continue having those folks come over here.”

Asked what his message to the Obama administration is on the “humanitarian crisis” at the South Texas-Mexico border, Cuellar said: “Stop the policy immediately. Put a one stop center up. Coordinate everything. Bring a whole bunch of immigration judges down here. I understand they (the judges) are backlogged right now. Hire more judges. And, when you stop them (the immigrants) you feed them, you take care of them and you give them their immigration hearing and you deport them immediately.”

Cuellar said if the federal government does not “send that strong message” the waves of undocumented immigrants from Central American will keep coming into the country. “They realize this has become a de facto Cuban policy. Under the Cuban policy, if a Cuban sets foot on U.S. soil they are in. What we are doing, de facto, is the same thing with the Central Americans.”

Cuellar said it needs stressing that the current crisis has nothing to do with Mexican immigrants.

“Remember, this is not a big problem with the Mexicans. With the Mexicans you can do expedited removals, you can take them voluntarily across the river. It is the OTMs. And, as these people get interviewed, we are asking them, why did you decide to come to Texas? Most of them are saying, ‘it is not our decision; it is the smuggling organizations that are making these decisions.’ They are flooding the zone right now. They know that if you come with a family, a kid, one, two, three, whatever, you are not going to be deported, you are going to be released and that is exactly what they are doing.”

Cuellar added that the Obama administration “had better wake up” and realize what is going on.

“Once they (the OTM family units) are released they will go someplace in the United States and it is going to be so hard to find them. They (the administration) are basically saying, ‘come in, we will feed you, we will give you medical services and then we will give you a piece of paper that says you can roam anywhere. If you want to show up for an immigration hearing later on, you can’.”

Cuellar said that as a result of such this policy the U.S. is “going to keep adding to the 11 million or 12 million undocumented that we have here.” He asked who will foot the bill. “Who is going to be paying for those individuals? What services are going to be provided at a later time? Right now the churches and the non-profits are providing the medical help but eventually, some are going to start going to our hospitals.” As for schooling, Cuellar pointed out that the law says even if a child is not a U.S. citizen they can go to a public school.

Asked if he knows what sort of things immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are hearing in their homeland about moving to the United States, Cuellar said: “The information we are getting is that they are being told the economic situation is better here. The economic situation is deteriorating in Central America, the violence has increased, and, with the (Obama administration) policies being created here, there is a perfect storm. Certainly, we have got to change this situation.”

On Saturday, Cuellar will visit a Border Patrol detention facility in McAllen where he will speak with federal agents and OTM immigrants. He is slated to hold a news conference at the facility – which is located on Military Highway – immediately after his visit. The news conference is slated for 2:45 p.m. Central Time.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on the current immigration situation in the Rio Grande Valley. Part Two, featuring a humanitarian aid worker, will be published on Saturday.