Homeland Security chief in Valley by mid-week to talk immigration

Visit among several high-profile trips to area over border

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is expected in the Rio Grande Valley Wednesday and Thursday to meet with local officials, according to the mayor of McAllen. Mayorkas’ arrival will be one of several high-profile visits to the area anticipated this week, all in response to the increasing number of migrants crossing into the U.S. and who are released from federal custody.

A Department of Homeland Security statement, however, only mentioned Thursday regarding Mayorkas’ visit.

“On Thursday, August 12, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas will be in South Texas to receive operational updates and engage with the DHS frontline workforce,” DHS’s statement read late Monday afternoon. “While in South Texas, Secretary Mayorkas will meet with local officials and community leaders. Additional details will be announced in the coming days.”

Mayor Javier Villalobos has been in communication with DHS, Villalobos told The Monitor Monday morning, adding that the secretary is expected to be in town Wednesday and meet with local officials Thursday.

“Plans have not been finalized yet, but hopefully we will be a part,” Villalobos said.

Other local leaders have yet to confirm their participation. Cameron County officials, however, said they were made aware of the visit and “are planning to attend once details of his visit have been confirmed.”

Villalobos said he also expects members from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to visit the Valley on Tuesday.

Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz is planning a trip to the Valley this week. Ortiz, who will begin his tenure as the head of Border Patrol on Friday, visited agents in Del Rio and Laredo last week and plans to do the same in the Valley before the current chief, Rodney Scott, formally steps down.

These visits come as agents in the Valley are seeing a high increase in apprehensions and local communities saw a similar rise in migrants released from federal custody.

DHS has pivoted in recent days to target Spanish-speaking media. On Friday, officials held a news conference to talk about deportation flights which started again at the end of July.

“Simply put, what we want to discourage is irregular migration,” Border Patrol Operations Director Manuel Padilla stressed during Friday’s news conference.

Padilla, the former Border Patrol chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector, addressed the current overcapacity needs faced on the border.

“The capacity of that sector has been exceeded,” Padilla replied when asked about the number of people crossing through the area. “We no longer have the capacity to efficiently handle the numbers of people and not only the Border Patrol, but non-governmental organizations with whom we work very closely.”

In May, Mayorkas visited the U.S. Customs and Border Protection tents in Donna at a time when the number of unaccompanied children in federal custody significantly increased. Additional emergency shelters that opened across the country at the time helped manage the situation.

During McAllen’s city commission meeting Monday, commissioners received a briefing on how operations managing the release of migrants in the city shifted over the weekend.

Migrants released from federal custody are now dropped off at the Anzalduas Park migrant camp, instead of being sent to the respite center in downtown McAllen where they were first tested for COVID-19.

Those testing procedures are now conducted at the park.

While the park started with about 250 migrants at their site the first day it opened last week, the park accommodated about 1,000 people as of Monday. The increase is attributed to the change in the drop-off procedure. Preparations are underway to expand capacity at the park.

“The current operation at the park has the capacity of approximately 1,200 individuals and that capacity is being increased in anticipation of higher numbers,” Jeff Johnston, assistant city manager, told commissioners.

Johnston said they’re also concerned with the rise in the COVID-positive rate.

“The average COVID-positive daily rate also went up from about 11.7% two weeks ago, to about 14.8% this last week. We continue to keep a close eye on that,” the assistant city manager said.

So far, about 2,000 migrant families are in quarantine across the Valley, although not everyone who is placed in quarantine tests positive for the virus. Many family members choose to stay together if one of their members tests positive.

The number of migrants released from federal custody increased drastically over the last two weeks, Villalobos said.

Records obtained from public information requests submitted by The Monitor show two recent peaks when CBP released about 1,750 people on July 19 and then about 1,970 on Aug. 1.

“This last week, we hit another all-time high of 11,026 drop-offs for an average of about 1,575 per day. We have never seen numbers that high,” Johnston said. This week, the assistant manager said the numbers appear to be slightly under last week’s, a trend the city is doubtful will hold.