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'It will be a nightmare': Texas city braces for flood of border crossers when Covid rule ends in May

McAllen, Texas, says it will need Washington to foot the bill for an expected record surge in migration over the U.S.-Mexico border.

As the Biden administration prepares to lift Covid restrictions for border crossers on May 23, local officials from what has historically been one of the busiest crossing points are sounding the alarm that they’ll need Washington to foot the bill for an expected record surge in migration over the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Logistically, it will be a nightmare,” said Mayor Javier Villalobos of McAllen, Texas, the largest city in the sector that is typically the epicenter of Southwest border crossings, the Rio Grande Valley. Most immigrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley who are allowed into the U.S. to make asylum claims pass through McAllen to board buses or flights to the cities where they will make their cases in court. Under Covid restrictions known as Title 42, however, fewer than half have made it to McAllen, with the majority being turned back into Mexico at the border. 

In March, more than 7,000 migrants crossed the border per day on average, sending overall border crossings past 220,000, the most in more than two decades. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that when Title 42 lifts, those numbers could climb to 12,000 to 18,000 crossers per day. 

About 170,000 are waiting in camps in Mexico, where they’ve been living in poor conditions after having been denied entry to the U.S. because of Title 42.

Villalobos and his staff have been in touch with the White House, he said, about plans to feed, transport and temporarily shelter what could be thousands of migrants per day crossing through the area.

Villalobos’ message is simple: “If they need our help, then we need the funding. We are not in the business of immigration. We do not budget for immigration.”

Villalobos and McAllen’s assistant city manager, Jeff Johnston, said they received about $30 million from the federal government over the past year and that they’ll need more than that to be ready to handle the coming influx. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed the amount, and a spokesperson said the agency “greatly values the partnership of communities along the Southwest border, and regularly engages with elected officials, local leaders and non-governmental organizations.”

On recent calls with Biden administration staff members, McAllen officials have asked for more funding. So far, they said, they haven’t been given a guarantee. Most promises of funds come on a monthly, piecemeal basis, they said.

McAllen was given $1.65 million in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle migration during April, according to the mayor’s office, but they say they need an additional lump sum to make plans. 

“We believe that the federal government should resolve the issue that they have finding ways to get immigrants where they need to go,” Johnston said. “We anxiously await their final resolution to all of this.”

Last summer, officials in Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located, opened their own site for arriving migrants at Anzalduas Park in the city of Mission, where border crossers could be tested for Covid and held, if they were positive, before being transferred to local shelters. The officials had planned to shut it down soon, but with the recent announcement that Title 42 will lift next month, they’ve decided to keep it open. They say they will need more money to run a testing and quarantine site on such a large scale. 

Excluding the funds given to McAllen, agencies and nonprofit organizations in Hidalgo County got $1 million from DHS, according to agency data.

A spokesman said DHS has "put in place a comprehensive, whole-of-government plan to manage any potential increase in the number of migrants encountered at our border, and DHS has established a Southwest Border Coordination Center to execute those plans. We are increasing our capacity to process new arrivals, evaluate asylum requests, and quickly remove those who do not qualify for protection. We will increase personnel and resources as needed and have already redeployed more than 600 law enforcement officers to the border.”

“[We] will continue to regularly engage with all stakeholders to provide updates and hear their feedback,” the spokesman said.

'A safe and orderly process'

Perhaps the most important non-governmental organization in the area is Catholic Charities. Every day, the Catholic Charities shelter in McAllen takes in van loads and busloads of recently arrived immigrants, transported directly from Customs and Border Protection custody. From there, they are given a chance to shower and to get meals, as well as help to navigate their journeys to their final destinations in the U.S., where they will make their cases before immigration judges. 

For that reason, anyone who wants to measure the heat of migration flow in the Rio Grande Valley looks to Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Catholic Charities shelter in McAllen. 

Her shelter now sees mostly families with children under 7, as they are more likely to be allowed into the U.S. under current Covid restrictions. But when Title 42 lifts, she said, she will see far more migrants. 

Catholic Charities has advocated for the lifting of Title 42, and Pimentel remains confident that her shelter can take on the increased numbers. 

“I believe we will be able to manage the numbers of people that may be released by Border Patrol to us,” she said. “I appreciate the support I get from Border Patrol, the federal government and the city government. We want to make sure we have a safe and orderly process.”