McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Mayoral candidates vying to lead the city of McAllen discussed the influx of asylum-seekers, whom U.S. Border Patrol officials are releasing daily into South Texas, during an online debate hosted by the McAllen Area Rotary Club on Wednesday.
The five candidates each were asked if they were elected mayor what they feel their role should be as a spike in immigration in the region is affecting the city and its resources.
Most of the candidates expressed concern for the safety of border residents, and several said it is an issue that should be handled by the federal government, and not the local government.
“It is a federal issue. The city has no control,” said candidate Othal Brand Jr., son of former McAllen Mayor Othal Brand Sr. “In many respects we have suffered collateral damage from policies passed out of Washington.”
Brand acknowledged that most asylum-seekers who are being released usually travel north and leave the area, but he added concerns about them bringing the coronavirus during this ongoing pandemic.
Since late January, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been releasing hundreds of undocumented migrants who are with “tender age” children near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley. These are young children that the Mexican government of Tamaulipas refuses to accept back due to the current violence and economic conditions in the Mexican border state.
Border Patrol officials have told Border Report that agents are not conducting COVID-19 tests on the migrants they apprehend unless they show overt medical symptoms. Then they are referred to local hospitals or to medical personnel for further examination.
“We have to make sure we partner with the federal government so the city is properly cared for so we aren’t increasing risks to the city,” said candidate Michael Fallek, a local entrepreneur.
City Commissioner Javier Villalobos, who is running for mayor, said that the city’s current partnership with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Humanitarian Respite Center, is providing excellent care and screening all migrants for coronavirus and helping to prevent the spread of the disease.
“Immigration is not an issue that we deal with for or against, public safety is and we must always make sure our citizens are safe,” Villalobos said.
At the Respite Center, all migrants are tested for COVID-19 as soon as they are dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol at the downtown bus station across the street. Anybody with the virus is placed in a two-week quarantine, Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the center, has told Border Report.
Dr. Shahid Rashid, a physician, disagreed that the migrants pose a public threat.
“We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants are our strengths. They are not a public safety issue. We are a border town and it’s our responsibility,” Rashid said. “It’s happened in the past and it will continue to happen.”
Rashid said if elected mayor, he would invite all regional municipal leaders to a sit down to chart out a plan and way to approach state and federal officials with one collective voice. He also praised the Humanitarian Respite Center and said more such charitable nonprofits should be opened up to help with the influx.
“We should work with charities, the federal and state governments to address these issues,” he said. “This is not a one-day issue.”
McAllen Mayor Pro-Tem and City Comissioner Veronica Vela Whitacre said residents should show compassion for the asylum-seekers.
“We have to adapt the best as we can,” Whitacre said. “We are asking the federal government to help and assist all border cities.”
“We aren’t the only city they’re coming through,” she said.
However, due to Title 42 restrictions imposed last March to stop the spread of coronavirus, asylum-seekers are not being admitted into the U.S. anywhere else along the Southwest border except for the Rio Grande Valley Sector, Border Patrol agents have told Border Report.
The great majority of daily family releases are occurring in McAllen because of the Humanitarian Respite Center. Some families are being released in Brownsville but none as far west as Laredo, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said on Wednesday.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling last month asked for and received 10,000 COVID-19 tests from Gov. Greg Abbott for use at the center. But Darling told Border Report those supplies are depleted because of the hundreds of migrants who come through the center each day.
Darling, who has run the city for the past eight years, decided not to seek re-election.
The mayoral election will be held on May 1.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.