Border mayors, county judges ask feds to pause release of migrants

Democratic Congressman from Laredo, Henry Cuellar helped lead a meeting between several south Texas community leaders and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The message from the group was unified: “We need help.”

“Curtail it. Stop it. Pause it. Moratorium: whatever term you want to use. That’s what we need,” said McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.

Mayors and county judges from several border communities are asking the federal government to pause the release of asylum-seeking immigrants from Customs and Border Protection custody.

Many said they felt the federal government was not providing enough support to deal with the thousands of immigrants released from CBP custody this year.

“The message was clear, whatever system they’re using is broken. It needs fixing,” said Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz.

Those who attended the meeting during Secretary Mayorkas’ trip to south Texas said they felt the federal government was putting the burden of caring for many of the migrants who are released from custody on local communities. Many in the group said the number of migrants released is taxing communities already spread thin dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re fighting a battle with our hands behind our backs and unarmed,” said Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina.

The concern is not every border community has the resources to test migrants released from custody for COVID, quarantine positive cases or provide shelter space. Saenz said the city of Laredo actually sued the federal government over the number of overflow migrants being sent to his city from the Rio Grande Valley. Saenz said he is having to send many migrants to other cities without first testing them for COVID.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to test, quarantine; so we don’t test these folks,” Saenz.

Saenz said since his city lacks this type of infrastructure, a system has been worked out to where a local charity helps the migrants coming to his city with travel plans. The charity secures tickets, itineraries, even cab vouchers, and then sends them on buses to transportation hubs like Houston, Dallas or Austin. Saenz also said those boarding the buses are given masks and other pieces of PPE.

“We are trying to make sure these individuals are going to places that have the resources to truly help them,” said Saenz.

Director of the City of Houston’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, George Buenik said Laredo does notify them when buses are headed our way. Buenik said Laredo’s emergency management coordinator will text Houston officials when a bus is leaving Laredo. Buenik said they are given the bus number and the terminal where it will arrive.

Buenik said the buses from Laredo are heading to one of two terminals on Harrisburg. Buenik said those heading to cities in the north will typically go through Dallas, those heading to the east coast come through Houston and those heading west are typically sent to Austin.

Buenik said he and the city’s health director, Steven Williams actually went to the bus terminals on Harrisburg to watch the process. Buenik said most are simply passing through Houston, those staying in the area have family, friends or a shelter volunteer already waiting on their arrival.

Buenik said there are not “large groups of people just being dumped in the city with nowhere to go.” Buenik said the city is also prepared to test those coming from Laredo if needed. Buenik said so far the buses headed to Houston from Laredo have 21-50 migrants onboard.

In contrast to Laredo’s situation, migrants being released in the Rio Grande Valley sector are getting tested. Working with the the city of McAllen, Hidalgo County and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol is taking all migrants released from custody in that sector to Anzalduas park where they are tested for COVID. Sister Norma Pimentel told KPRC 2 those who are positive remain in the park under quarantine, those who are negative continue on to their final destination.

A FEMA grant is paying for the testing.

“It’s responsibility that belongs to the federal government, however, the reason we have Anzalduas Park and over 2,000 people in Anzalduas Park is because the federal government doesn’t have any place for us to take them,” said Hidalgo County judge Richard Cortez.

Cuellar said he also continues to push President Biden’s administration to put more pressure on Mexico to help stem the flow of migrants to the border.

“For many years I’ve been saying if you play defense on the one-yard line here on the US/Mexico border you’re going to lose out,” said Cuellar. “Mexico can do a lot more.”

Cuellar said the meeting with Secretary Mayorkas was productive and he is hoepful more immediate solutions are coming. Customs and Border Protection records show there have been 1.3 million migrants apprehended along the southern border or deemed inadmissible to the United States since Oct. 1.

Cuellar said approximately 67% of this traffic comes through Texas.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”