President Obama is expected to visit here Wednesday for the first time since the immigration crisis has intensified along the Rio Grande Valley, meeting with Gov. Rick Perry, and local and religious leaders who are seeking speedy aid to deal with an overwhelming influx of immigrant children.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied immigrant youth have been caught along the Southwest border this fiscal year, almost double last year's total. The epicenter of the crisis is the valley, where more than 37,000 were apprehended this year, almost triple last year's total.
Obama is stopping in Dallas and Austin this week for Democratic fundraisers and a public meeting about the economy.
He has faced criticism for not visiting the border. Perry, who last month ordered a state-funded border security surge, challenged Obama to visit the valley and initially declined a "quick handshake on the tarmac" unless the president was willing to have a "substantive meeting."
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a valley Democrat, warned this week that bypassing the border could prove Obama's "Katrina moment," a comparison to President George W. Bush's post-hurricane flyover.
Instead of visiting the border, Obama now plans to discuss the crisis in Dallas with Perry and a round table of local officials grappling with the humanitarian crisis.
In Washington, Justice Department officials Wednesday announced plans to expedite immigration court proceedings for unaccompanied youth and families, moving them ahead of other cases to be heard by an expanded corps of immigration judges.
Some of the 243 immigration judges in 59 courts nationwide will be reassigned to hear the cases, either at the border or by video with some new judges appointed temporarily, officials said. The department also plans to expand assistance to Central American prosecutors and law enforcement, creating special teams of prosecutors to target human trafficking and organized crime.
Five hundred miles south of Dallas, Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole was expected in the border city of McAllen Wednesday for a tour of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station and processing facility.
In McAllen, the flow of young migrants across the river appears unceasing, and officials were pleading this week for immediate help.
The Border Patrol station is holding double capacity, immigrants are bused out of state or released with notices to appear before immigration officials—and little else.
In McAllen, the busiest crossing area for the recent influx, the Border Patrol station is holding people at double capacity, and immigrants are flown out of state or released with notices to appear before immigration officials—and little else.
The city and surrounding county are home to more than 800,000, an amalgam of ranchers and snowbirds, wealthy Mexican emigres in million-dollar developments and poor migrants in trailer park settlements known as colonias.
So far, there have been no major protests here—for or against the recent immigrants. Militias offered to come, but the local sheriff balked. Charities have managed to work with immigrants and law enforcement.
At Calvary Baptist Church, the Rev. Chad Mason ministers to both the those who recently crossed illegally and Border Patrol agents.
This week, he said White House staff reached out to him for information ahead of the president's visit. Mason told them what he could, but he wishes the president would come see conditions first hand.
"It's a mistake that he's not going to tour one of these detention centers himself," Mason said of overcrowded Border Patrol holding areas, "That seems to be what changes everyone from policy management to heartfelt concern. Even Gov. Perry—he went from being focused on the policies and protecting the border, almost militant, and then when he came and toured the facility he talked about the human need."
Mason, a parent and Army veteran, said Border Patrol agents at his church feel overwhelmed.
"You have on one end people who are very hardened and don't care about the humanitarian issue at all and, on the other end, you have people who see these as their own kids, who spend money out of their own pockets to buy these kids shoes," he said.
The pastor spends four days a week at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a gathering point for volunteers aiding immigrants, mothers and children released by the Border Patrol at the nearby Greyhound station.
Some families have not showered or eaten in days, Mason said. Although they were offered food at Border Patrol stations, he said, they were too nervous or scared to eat.
"Some of them are so stressed out, eating is the last thing they can think about. We've had babies that are passed out because they were not nursing," he said.
Churches have tried to help both immigrants and Border Patrol agents at local stations, Mason said. So far, they have not been allowed inside holding stations.
"We have all sorts of trained professionals who can get involved," Mason said, as well as volunteers, "Everyone calls wanting to care for the children, but we don't have access."
Local Border Patrol stations clearly need help, said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.
Garcia, a Democrat, supports a recent state border security surge, but thinks Perry and other Texas officials who ordered it need to realize that stepped-up security alone won't stop the migrant flow. More needs to be done to secure Mexico's southern border and dissuade migrants from starting the journey, he said--an effort he believes the Obama administration is pursuing.
"You can have border patrol agents lined up all across the Texas border—what are they going to do when undocumented families come across the river and step on U.S. soil? Are they going to take them
back? Of course not," Garcia said.
Garcia was disappointed by a congressional field hearing on the crisis in McAllen last week, where he said Perry and others pointed fingers but didn't offer solutions.
He was encouraged to see Obama request $3.7 billion in funding Tuesday to address the crisis. He doesn't fault Obama for not venturing farther south, but said he hopes the president and Congress take action soon.
"We didn't cause it and we have no way to stop it—this is clearly a national issue created by these immigration policies," he said.
Garcia also hopes federal officials reimburse local governments. Hidalgo County and McAllen have already spent $80,000 dealing with migrant families, he said.
"We're trying to do the right thing, the humane thing, treating these people with more dignity than they are being treated in some parts of California," he said, alluding to recent clashes between activists and Border Patrol buses carrying immigrants to Murrieta from South Texas.
Hidalgo County Constable Lazaro "Larry" Gallardo, another Democrat, had a similar message for the president and Congress: "Stop fighting and get something done."
He hears constituents vent their frustration at the local coffee shop. Many feel victimized by the immigrant influx and have given up on Washington addressing the crisis, he said.
"I talked to a landowner who's got land on the river and he's afraid to go over there. He took his cattle out. He can't even enjoy his property that he's paying taxes on because of this. It's sad," Gallardo said, "Ranchers are fed up. They've got fences broken and people moving across their land, going through houses. It's a scary situation for some of these people."
The waterfront at local Anzalduas Park has become a hot spot for crossings and photo opportunities under the palms and mesquite. On Thursday, Perry plans to appear there while in town for a briefing, Gallardo said.
"I've seen all the dog and pony shows of politicians who want to go out on gunboats and tour the river," Gallardo said, "Nothing's been done. Border Patrol has their hands tied. I feel for those agents on the ground," he said, as well as immigrant women and children making the illegal crossing out of desperation.
"Something needs to be done—whether it's to help them or not help them and send them back," the constable said.
On Sunday, Gallardo watched as smugglers sent a group of migrants across the Rio Grande from Mexico into the park, walking along a levee. Then, as his deputies and Border Patrol were busy responding, more crossed into another side of the park, including a woman on jet skis carrying a 2-1/2-year old.
"It just never stops," he said, "Everyone knows what's going on—whether they want to do anything about it is the question."