Congress left towns and counties on the Texas-Mexico border hanging last week when it adjourned without sending a supplemental budget measure to the president. The local governments have used their own resources since last spring to care for thousands of undocumented immigrants flooding into their communities from Central America, and they had hoped Congress would reimburse local taxpayers.
Late Friday, the U.S. House passed a $694 million measure for border security operations. It would have allowed state and local law enforcement agencies to apply for reimbursement for personnel, overtime and travel costs, among other expenses incurred during the ongoing immigration influx on the border. Expenditures for humanitarian efforts would have been included.
The measure passed 223 to 189, but the move was largely symbolic, because the U.S. Senate had already adjourned until after Labor Day and would have likely killed the bill had they taken it up. President Obama also had said that he would veto the bill.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, was the only Democrat to vote for the measure, which also included a controversial policy change that would have reduced the protections afforded Central American undocumented children. Cuellar said he had asked to include the reimbursement component in the supplemental bill to help governments he represents recoup some of their losses.
“Unfortunately, the continuing influx of undocumented immigrants has made this assistance unsustainable and caused an undue hardship to the local taxpayer,” Cuellar wrote in a letter to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
McAllen is considered “ground zero” of the immigration influx, which began in earnest last spring. From October through June, agents in the Rio Valley Grande Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended about 154,600 undocumented immigrants from countries other than Mexico, including about 42,160 unaccompanied children and 42,360 family units, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Thousands of those family units have received temporary care at a shelter in McAllen, and others have gotten care in Brownsville.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said that if migrants with similar needs continue to arrive through the end of the year, the city will be out about $605,500. The region, including the cities of Weslaco and Mission, along with Willacy and Hidalgo counties, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council will incur costs of about $1.56 million, which he said was “an investment our region cannot address without federal aid.”
In a separate letter to Rep. Cuellar, Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, the congressman’s brother, said his office has had to provide additional security at the local bus station where the migrants depart for other cities. Threats of exploitation and theft have meant that deputies have also had to provide security to citizens who have volunteered to help the migrants.
Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said the county budget is more than $176 million per year and that the reimbursement request is more about whose responsibility it is to pay for the expenses.
“This is not a local issue,” he said.
Without congressional action, it is unclear what avenues remain for local governments, though some relief could come through a presidential executive order. On Friday, Obama said he had no choice but to act alone since Congress could not agree on a spending bill.
“We are hoping somehow through the president’s pen or his actions we’ll get reimbursed,” said Teclo Garcia, the director of government and public affairs for McAllen. "It’s not fair to the taxpayers that we have to foot the bill.”
As they wait, though, the city will continue to provide relief to the migrants, Garcia said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.