Texas City Handling Migrant Surge Awaits Federal Reimbursement as Hundreds Arrive Daily

Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, Texas, is using the resources at his disposal to prevent the residents of his community from feeling the impact of hundreds of migrants arriving in the area every day.

Darling, who has been the city's mayor for eight years, said during a recent interview with Newsweek that he wants people outside of Texas to understand that his city is safe, regardless of preconceptions he fears may exist about border towns like McAllen.

"If you didn't stand at a bus station when people got off the bus and went through it, you wouldn't even know," he said of the city's experience handling the current migrant surge. "That's what we wanted our community to feel—we didn't want them to feel overwhelmed. We didn't want to make it a political issue in our community."

McAllen, which the Census Bureau estimates had a population of about 143,000 people in 2019, is located right along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas' southernmost region. Darling led the city through two previous migrant surges, in 2014 and 2019, experiences that are helping him manage the latest surge that began shortly after President Joe Biden took office.

McAllen migrant surge
Border Patrol agents take asylum seekers into custody, as seen from a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter near the U.S.-Mexico border on March 23 in McAllen, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

McAllen began partnering with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in 2014, which Darling said continues to be a significant source of support for the city's efforts as migrants arrive in 2021. When the current surge began, Darling said, officials transformed a former respite center—which he said was turned into a homeless center following 2019's surge—back into a respite area for arriving migrants.

On any given day, the number of migrants arriving in McAllen can range from 100 to 600, Darling said. An estimated 600 migrants arrived Wednesday night alone, he added.

One big difference between previous surges and the one happening now is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which Darling said has introduced some "logistical problems." Even so, the city is managing the reality of the pandemic, with a coronavirus testing facility set up at the bus station where border officials drop off arriving migrants, the mayor said. Migrants who test positive are then quarantined in hotel rooms before they travel to their next destination, Darling said.

Darling said city officials have a meeting with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials later Thursday to determine whether the federal government can take over the COVID-19 testing and quarantining tasks involving newly-arrived migrants, but for now those are tasks the city and its charity partners are managing and funding.

The mayor said the Biden administration has offered to provide the city and its charity partners with funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle the migrant surge, but those funds require approval from Texas Governor Greg Abbott's office. Abbott refused the funding earlier this month, according to the Associated Press.

"The federal government has the responsibility to fund the testing of anybody coming here who does have COVID," the governor told reporters while on a March 9 visit to the border.

DHS officials have encouraged Abbott to reconsider the funding offer, the AP reported.

Darling said he and the city's charity partners are keeping track of all their expenses related to the migrant surge in the hope that the federal funding will eventually come through.

"It's not fair to the taxpayers of McAllen, because we feel it's just an extension of the federal program," Darling said.

The mayor added that DHS officials previously offered to reimburse the city and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley for their efforts. "I think the governor came out and said that he would not use those funds to reimburse the city or Catholic Charities because he didn't want to encourage further immigration issues," Darling said. "So we're working with the federal government now to have another vehicle. They just can't write us a check—it has to be under some program."

Despite the holdups in federal reimbursements, Darling said it's likely the funding will come through eventually. As an example, he cited the migrant surge of 2014, during which McAllen dealt with "the same issues" in receiving the reimbursements.

"We'll get through it somehow," he said.