By BERENICE GARCIA and VALERIE GONZALEZ
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley reversed course on plans to expand their respite center in McAllen, explaining that the decision to withdraw a conditional use permit request was because the extra space was not currently necessary.
The nonprofit had submitted the application for a conditional use permit to expand their operations at the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen to the second story of the building, according to a memo submitted to the McAllen city commissioners who were set to consider the request during their regular meeting Monday.
Asylum seekers are typically dropped off at the respite center after they’ve been released from custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
However, the number of migrants released at the shelter has been consistently exceeding the capacity of 600 since the end of May, according to city records.
During the meeting, though, city officials announced the request for the permit had been pulled from the agenda at the request of the applicant who was listed as Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities.
“At the moment she does not foresee a need to expand,” Brenda Nettles Riojas, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brownsville, wrote in an email about Pimentel’s decision to withdraw the request. “If such a need arises, she would then submit a request.”
While the respite center had been exceeding capacity in recent months, the decision to withdraw the application comes as the city of McAllen reported a decrease in the number of migrants being released to them by CBP.
Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston reported that the numbers were down significantly last week.
“Back on Aug. 9, we reported an all-time high of 11,026 immigrants dropped off by Customs and Border Protection that week here in McAllen. That was an average of about 1,575 per day,” Johnston told city commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “This last week, our numbers were down quite a bit from that, in fact down by over 40%. We had 6,320 drop-offs this last week for an average of about 900 per day.”
Johnston also noted that the COVID-19 positivity rate among the asylum seekers was also down from about 15% two weeks ago to approximately 12% this week.
Numbers were also down at Anzalduas Park which is the site of an emergency shelter where all migrants are taken, tested for COVID-19 and quarantined if they are positive for the virus. Those who test negative are taken to the respite center.
“The capacity at that site currently is about 2,200 in terms of capacity,” Johnston said. “While at one point last week we had close to 2,100 individuals in the facility, that number has now decreased significantly.”
“Today the site holds just a little bit over 300 individuals,” he added. “In total, Catholic Charities currently estimates they have about 900 individuals in quarantine throughout the area with the understanding that not all of those individuals are necessarily COVID positive.”
He attributed the decrease at the emergency shelter to several factors, including an overall decrease in individuals released from federal custody over the last 10 days and the work of Catholic Charities to connect them with family members who help them on their way to their final destination.
The number of migrants released in the area could soon change, too. On Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court ruled to reinstate a Trump era policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
During Monday’s meeting, Johnston said they were anticipating news from the federal government on Title 42 and the potential reinstatement of MPP, which he said will potentially have a “dramatic impact” on the number of people being dropped off at the shelter.
Both Title 42 and MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico, are policies enforced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to send migrants back to Mexico.
CBP sent back about 1,070,000 migrants to Mexico under Title 42, a federal public health authority, since the police was implemented in January 2019.
The MPP program was created under the Trump administration to allow migrants to enter the U.S. and request asylum but forced them to wait their U.S. immigration court hearings in Mexico.
The controversial program faced numerous legal challenges and placed hundreds in dangerous border cities where migrants were often victims of kidnappings and other violence. The Biden administration halted the practice, but the Supreme Court is currently weighing a decision that could reinstate it.
If Catholic Charities were to submit the same request again in the future, it’s unclear how likely it would be for commissioners to approve it, given that it faced staunch opposition this time from at least one stakeholder.
Raquel Reynoso, who owns property next to the respite center, submitted a letter to the city in opposition to the conditional use permit, explaining that the increase in activity at the center had affected her businesses.
“They weren’t letting people through who were coming from the bus station or cars also stopped coming through because a bus would stop and release people,” Reynoso told The Monitor. “It wouldn’t let people through. They took our parking spots out front away so they could accommodate their taxis and buses.”
Reynoso said she’s been in the area for six years, but this was the first time she had experienced any problems.
“I don’t have anything against the people, because we all have needs,” Reynoso said, “but my needs — I’m paying so many taxes, insurance, and everything — so they don’t let me work? Can you imagine?”
She added that one of her four tenants, Yerberia Mexicana, recently left, and her commercial insurer no longer wanted to insure the building because of the amount of garbage left in the nearby alley.
“Now, they didn’t want to insure us because there’s too much trash that could cause a fire,” she said.
Citing such opposition, the city’s planning and zoning commission voted to recommend commissioners not to approve the conditional use permit request.
Asked about his stance on the issue, McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said it would depend on the need.
“It depends on the necessity because a lot of the times people — for example — are very against it, but it had to be done; otherwise we’d have people all over the place in the downtown area running around without direction,” Villalobos said after Monday’s meeting. “But this was different, it was pulled so we don’t know what, ultimately, what the reasons were.”
As to whether he was optimistic that the number of people at the respite center would continue to decrease, he said some of that depended on MPP and the courts.
“I think everybody knows there’s some cases going on in the federal level that maybe, possibly, assist in curtailing the flow,” he said. “So we’ll see what happens.”