Q&A: Brownsville mayor speaks on migrant influx

Texas

Migrants stand in line after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody at a bus station, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Brownsville, Texas. Team Brownsville, a humanitarian group, is helping the migrants reach their final destination in the U.S. A surge of migrants on the Southwest border has the Biden administration on the defensive. An official says U.S. authorities encountered nearly double the number children traveling alone across the Mexican border in one day this week than on an average day last month. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) — On Monday, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, met with members of the press for a Q&A about how the city is handling the recent increase in migrants.

The Migrant Protection Protocol program was placed in 2019 during former President Donald Trump’s administration, where people seeking asylum in the United States from Central and Latin American countries were forced to wait in Mexico.

In February, the Biden administration rolled back the MPP program, in which migrants under the program are allowed into the country during their asylum proceedings

Q: Did Brownsville receive any support from state elected officials, or was it mostly local organizations?

A: The only support we’ve actually received from the state was an early allocation of 10,000 rapid testing kits at the end of January. Governor Abbott refused to accept any sort of FEMA, which actually offered to pay for or reimburse cities for testing and for housing anybody that tested positive, but the governor declined to accept that assistance. All the other help we’ve gotten has been from the federal government as well as Customs and Border Patrol on logistics and coordination.

Q: Did any of your elected congress members act as the middle man between the city and the federal government, or has it been direct communication?

A: The three congressmen in RGV are Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzales, and Filemon Vela who is our congressman. I do talk to all three on a pretty regular basis, Filemon most of all those three. I have direct communication with officials so I haven’t really had to go through our congressmen as a middle person.

Q: 18 republican senators visited South Texas last week, did any of the senators provide relief or speak to you for any kind of support?

A: Well, I know they held a roundtable discussion with some local officials last Friday. I was invited by Senator Cornyn but I wasn’t able to attend. They did hold that discussion, and I believe they had a press conference afterward which was as anticipated, highly politicized, and included a lot of the same talking points we’ve heard before. So, we know where their concerns lay, I know that they are lobbying for their concerns and their points so we will see what comes out of it.

Some of the following question and answer were translated from Spanish.

Q: Could you further explain the COVID-19 testing tents that were installed next to the bus station?

A: The only thing that I can say is that the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security installed the tents because they are coordinating the COVID-19 testing.

Q: Since DHS will be taking over testing, will the City of Brownsville have access to the results?

A: I haven’t asked but I assume we will. If for any reason we don’t have those numbers, I will ask for them.

Q: Why did DHS take over the COVID-19 testing?

A: The federal government made the decision, we have always asked them and let them know that they should be the ones to do and pay for the testing. They agreed and took over.

Q: Are there still 200 people arriving to the bus station daily? Has it changed?

A: We usually see 200 people a day, mostly family units, plus 50 from the MPP program. So on a daily basis 250, sometimes a bit more but never more than 300.

Q: Since Abbott didn’t agree for FEMA to provide assistance, will the federal government provide relief?

A: There are three ways they can help us. The first is by handling the testing, which they are already doing. The second is paying for hotel rooms for migrants that positive to quarantine in, they have offered to pay for those but for now, we have organizations that are paying for the hotels. The third is for them to pay our employees, they have told us since the beginning that we will be reimbursed for that. So, we are keeping tabs on all the expenses.

Q: Is Brownsville only accepting MPP migrants fom Matamoros, or are they also coming from Reynosa?

A: From all that I know, we are receiving the people that are coming from Matamoros, if we are receiving people from Reynosa, I’m unaware.

Q: You had mentioned that 250 was the limit of people per day, and you would expand if necessary. In the case that those numbers increase, what’s the message to the federal government on how much the city can handle?

A: Actually, our building capacity has increased, so we can handle probably around 400. Brownsville, unlike other cities, focuses on processing and getting people in and out as quickly as possible.

Most people we are processing are actually here for less than 12 hours. Typically within a couple of hours, they are on their way to their sponsor or their family.

The concern initially is not sheltering or not having the capacity for sheltering. We don’t have a real capacity for sheltering here in Brownsville, and that not our focus. We find that people that come want to leave, they don’t want to stay.

Now that DHS is handling the testing, we can focus our resources on our personnel and actually help them with travel arrangements, getting their information. We have coordinated a system, with Customs and Border Patrol on drop-offs. To where it’s kind of metered and scheduled so that helps us quite a bit.

I’m talking to the administration and officials, if not every day every other day, letting them know where we are at. They are well aware of what we can do and what we can’t do. If they need any sort of assistance in processing more people than what we typically do, they always give us a heads up to see if we can do it or not. So it’s been pretty great coordination and communication with the administration.

Q: Are most Brownsville residents more concerned about the “economic crisis” than the influx of migrants?

A; There are some residents that are concerned about the number of individuals that are crossing, but some of that has to do with the fact that they don’t know most of the information. They hear some of their information from other elected officials that don’t live here, or the republican senators that were here last week, different people from Washington are giving different messages.

That’s why I’ve always felt that it’s important to really tell people our story and to let them know what we are actually seeing on the ground. Some residents are concerned about what they hear, rather than what they actually see.

The migrants that are crossing, it a process it very well coordinated. They are bussed over to our bus station, we process them, and they leave on busses or through the airport.

The public of Brownsville is not really going to interact or see them. So, there is no real cause for concern about that. But the economic situation is a real one and some of that has to do with the ban on non-essential travel that we have seen since last year.

So, I’ve been lobbying for that for the past month or so trying to get the administration to go ahead and try to get lift that ban that doesn’t allow Visa holders or people that want to come into Brownsville from Mexico, and that a big economic impact for us.

We want them to come over, we want them to see their families, we want them to come and spend some money over here. We are hoping that happens in the very near future, probably in about three weeks, we should get word as to whether or not it’s going to be lifted.

Q: NGOs, such as Team Brownsville, have “praised” that the cooperation with the city is great, how would you assess the cooperation with CBP? Do you think there is enough communication before migrants are being brought to the bus station?

A: Our emergency management director is always in communication, and they always give us a heads up when people are coming over and they are going to drop people off. It’s coordinated so it’s a pretty regular schedule.

We see people from 7 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Sometimes a little bit earlier. It’s important for us that they stop sending them to us at a certain point in time like I said 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. So that we can have a chance to process those people and get them out before the end of the day. It took a couple of weeks to kind of put it into practice, but it’s really been very seamless to be quite honest.

Q: Would the city be able to process more than 400 if Title 42 were to be lifted?

A: Actually, at this point, I hope that Title 42 is not lifted, and I don’t see a reason for it to be lifted. We are still seeing some public health concerns, and the COVID situation can reverse pretty quickly as we are seeing in Europe and other parts.

Like I said we feel comfortable saying we can do about 400 a day, and there is just a certain amount of time in a day. If the administration needed us to do more, they would have to give us some kind of lee time and we would have to consider that. But like I said, they have been very accommodating and they haven’t overwhelmed us to his point.

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