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POLITICS: PennAve

A crisis, but not for the Rio Grande Valley

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Immigration,Texas,Mexico,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Border Security

McALLEN, Texas -- It might be a “humanitarian crisis” for the country, as President Obama has labeled it. But “crisis” and “emergency” are two words that local officials and businesses in the Rio Grande Valley don’t want to apply to the arrival of large number of migrant families and unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border here in recent weeks.

The situation, which has captured national attention, is “pretty standard, business as usual” for Hidalgo County, said Jaime Longoria, an administrator in the office of the county judge.

The judge, Ramon Garcia, also downplayed the urgency of the situation in a meeting earlier in the week, saying that although the county needed resources to manage the problem, the situation was not an emergency.

“We don’t want it to be an emergency,” explained Teclo Garcia, an official for the city of McAllen, a border city of 140,000. Once the “emergency” designation is given, Garcia said, it becomes a story that reflects poorly on the area. He added: “Is it a disaster here in town? No, it’s not.”

The situation has stressed the federal government. Customs and Border Protection agents are busy picking up the migrants, most of whom have traveled across Mexico from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Officials have had to scramble to find places to shelter the unaccompanied minors who have been picked up along the border.

And the town bus stop and Catholic Charities relief center near the center of McAllen are busy with the families who have been picked up and discharged by border agents. There is a second Catholic Charities relief center in nearby Brownsville.

But McAllen’s residential areas, businesses and public spaces are largely unaffected. Life in the Rio Grande Valley, where the residents are used to human smuggling and drug trafficking in some areas, resembles nothing like a disaster.

McAllen’s boosters, trying to improve the poverty-stricken border town’s Image, are eager to dispel the suggestion that the situation has destabilized the city or increased the level of danger.

“We’re dealing with it,” said Keith Patridge, president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, adding that the immigrants are “not staying with us.”

Rio Grande Valley residents know that the migrants are just passing through. Most of the migrants in recent weeks take buses to meet relatives or friends in places across the country, including Chicago, New York City, Virginia and many other places. People here, including the many volunteers helping accommodate and send the immigrants on their way, say they feel an affinity for the Central Americans. The vast majority of locals are themselves recent immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from Mexico.

For all those reasons, local officials have communicated to state and federal policymakers that they do not want an emergency designation. Obama has ordered additional resources for the border patrol, but stopped short of an emergency declaration and used the careful “humanitarian crisis” formula to describe the situation.

Other politicians have fallen afoul of the distinction between a state of emergency and a “humanitarian crisis.”

Earlier in the week, Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, known for her filibuster last year of a bill to restrict late-term abortions, issued a press release calling on Gov. Rick Perry to declare a state of emergency along the border, writing that “as much as any natural disaster, this is a human one.”

After visiting the Border Patrol station in McAllen and meeting with local officials later in the day, however, Davis dialed back her rhetoric, saying at a press conference that the situation was “in some ways an emergency” but that “we are not talking about labeling these communities as places that are unsafe.”

It's the migrants themselves who are facing a crisis. Many cross the border, after an arduous and often dangerous journey across Mexico, and are hungry and thirsty when the Border Patrol finds them. Many need treatment for dehydration, according to volunteers who aid the families released by the Border Patrol.

Overcrowding at the locations where federal officers are holding unaccompanied minors is increasingly acute, say families who have left the facilities and lawmakers and others allowed access to the facilities.

Being held at the facilities with little attention, not the trek through Mexico, is the “most difficult thing that the children undergo,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.“I don’t know, [the Border Patrol] may be overlooking that because they’re too overwhelmed.”

For Catholic Charities and their volunteer workers, they do not know how long they will be expected to accommodate the influx of families needing care, and are in constant need of new volunteers and resources. Pimentel said, however, that the organization’s staff can manage the normal day-to-day work involved in alleviating poverty in the area without her “at least for a little while.”

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