McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As he gave his farewell address to a packed crowd on Wednesday, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, a longtime public servant, didn’t hold back his disdain for bureaucrats in Washington, who he says don’t understand the border, immigration, or the region’s economic ties to Mexico.
“With all the news we get with asylum-seekers and all those things we get depicted as a dangerous place, the border is depicted as a dangerous place. And guess what? McAllen is the one that’s on the news because that’s what it says because of the bus station and Border Patrol station. So we have to tell our story,” Darling said during his annual State of the City address at the McAllen Convention Center.
“I tell our story that we’re a safe city. We’re handling what’s brought to us. We’re a safe city. Our citizens feel safe and y’all come down because it’s a bunch of baloney that’s going on national TV,” said Darling who steps down on Saturday after 42 years in public service.
We’re handling what’s brought to us. We’re a safe city. Our citizens feel safe and y’all come down.”McAllen Mayor Jim Darling
A field of five mayoral candidates is running for his position, which he has held for the past eight years. Election Day is Saturday for this city of 151,000 that is across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Reynosa.
“God has placed us next to the great place of Mexico,” he said. “We have a strong relationship with neighboring cities,” said Darling, a South Texas transplant who is originally from New York. “I challenge the next mayor and new commissioners to build on these relationships and provide help.”
Darling is chairman of the Hidalgo-McAllen International Bridge Board, and Anzalduas International Bridge Board, and facilitating trade between the two countries has been an issue he has been heavily involved with.
During his lunchtime speech, he criticized the Biden administration for refusing to lift Title 42 travel restrictions, which were implemented over a year ago by Donald Trump to help prevent the spread of coronavirus between the two countries.
He said border merchants and businesses are hurting from a lack of retail sales in a region that has long been known for its strong ability to drawn Mexican shoppers.
Regardless of the continued restrictions, Darling said McAllen’s sales tax revenues remained 15th of all cities in the United States for retail sales collections.
The city’s La Plaza Mall, for instance, had once ranked as having the most retail sales per square foot of any shopping mall in the United States. And most of those sales were due to Mexican nationals crossing to shop, often for weekend sprees in which they’d be seen pulling large suitcases full of clothing and goods they would purchase north of the border.
“When you see your congressmen tell them we need to have non-essential travel reestablished so our friends, neighbors and business partners can come across the river,” Darling said to thunderous applause from the crowd. “Too many decisions are made in Washington, D.C., which is a heck of a lot far from the border where we really know what we need and what works for us.”
Too many decisions are made in Washington, D.C., which is a heck of a lot far from the border where we really know what we need and what works for us.”McAllen Mayor Jim Darling
McAllen, Texas, police and firemen were among those in the April 28, 2021, crowd of over 1,000 people who came for the lunchtime State of the City address by outgoing Mayor Jim Darling. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)
Seated in the audience of over 1,000, and in one of the tables closest to the stage, was U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen. Throughout the cavernous convention center were dozens of elected officials — from the Hidalgo County judge to school board trustees and city council members — all who came to bid farewell to a respected leader who has helped this city through a rough year, and an unprecedented past eight years.
Darling has served on several White House advisory boards regarding border issues. In total, he is currently on 18 boards, he said.
His successor, no doubt, has big shoes to fill and he said whoever takes his place must have a passion for the region in order to drive it forward.
He says he looks forward to watching the full implementation of the USMCA trade agreements between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which replaces NAFTA.
“When it gets fully implemented it will be explosive in our Valley,” he said. “There will be projects on both sides of the river.”
McAllen, with its many maquiladoras, is an economic hub for the region and is one of the most influential border cities in South Texas that set the course for border economics.
His 30-minutes swan song speech capped eight years as mayor of this close knit border community where candidates do not run affiliated with a political party, but on issues.
He has served a total of 42 years in public service, including years as the city’s attorney, city manager, and as a city councilman. Now he says he looks forward to being a McAllen citizen.
Known for his humor and light heartedness at these annual events, Darling took this final opportunity to once again make folks laugh.
He first approached the McAllen Convention Center stage on Wednesday in a suit and tie, which brought curious glances from the crowd that is used to seeing him make a grand entrance before his annual speeches. He has repelled from the rooftop, run in with disabled children, driven a fire truck to the entrance, and bicycled up to the microphone in years past.
Then he turned and said, “hold on,” and ran off the stage to the front of the room where he stripped off his business jacket to display a casual black shirt and he began dancing on the blue carpet to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack song “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.”
He missed more than a couple dance steps and enjoyed laughing at himself.
After the confetti finished flying from the rafters, he apologized to his wife, Sandra, who has an infectious laugh and always takes his pranks in stride. She waved at him from her table.
But once back in a suit, he resumed a serious air, and he recapped what he called an “extraordinary” and difficult year for all. This included nearly 3,000 deaths in Hidalgo County and over 88,000 cases of coronavirus. Flooding and destruction from Hurricane Hanna, which made landfall here in July. And a deep freeze that paraylzed the region after Valentine’s Day and turned what once was a lush green region, a dull brown full of dying palm trees.
In addition, he said the community is now weathering its third influx of immigrants from Central America. The first wave began in 2014.
“There has never been a mayor who has had to deliver the state of the city in more unusual and challenging times,” Darling said. “It’s a tough job and it doesn’t pay much.”
But he said the Rio Grande Valley has endured and survived because of its sense of community and dedication from nonprofits and residents who refuse to give up, or to give in. And then he gave one final blow to those in D.C. and challenged them to make right what is occurring on the South Texas border.
“We’ve had great private partners like Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army and others that have stepped up. But we are again dealing with a problem not of our own making but mainly the federal government’s inability to solve it’s immigration challenge,” he said. “We expect the federal government to make all this whole for the taxpayer expenditures that we are doing.”
After his speech, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Humanitarian Respite Center that helps asylum-seeking migrants released by the Department of Homeland Security, praised Darling for his years of dedication to McAllen and to the Rio Grande Valley.
The city purchased a nightclub and converted it into the facility in which daily about 400 to 500 migrants come for free food, shelter, clothing and help with travel plans after being released by federal border law enforcement officials.
“We have really a very nice relationship, working relationship and the city has always been there 100% and I hope they will continue as it has been,” Pimentel said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.