Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a series about the border crisis. Read the first story, about Sister Norma Pimentel and her work with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, here; the third story covers Othal E. Brand Jr., one of the few politicians who has directly taken action in securing the border. In the fourth installment, we spend a day with the Border Patrol. And in the fifth installment, our reporter talks with Edras, a sixteen-year-old who made the 1,400-mile trek from Guatemala.
“If you drive around town, you’ll never know that there’s anything out of the ordinary,” says Kevin Pagan, lead attorney and emergency management coordinator for the City of McAllen. “Life for our citizens is going on as normal. There’s no disruption in daily life. There’s no disruption in city services. It’s just that we have this extra operation that we’re having to deal with. I know I sound like I’m equivocating, but it is what it is.”
Pagan and I are sitting in his corner office on the second floor of McAllen’s City Hall, and no one working there seems to be particularly hurried, much less in crisis mode. It’s a Wednesday afternoon; media from around the world have descended on the area, national politicians from both parties are sounding off on the immigration situation daily, and nearly everywhere in McAllen—a quiet but rapidly growing city of 135,000 nestled into the sprawl of the Rio Grande Valley—feels totally ordinary.
McAllen’s main bus station, where the Border Patrol offloads immigrant families, isn’t surrounded by tent camps full of the huddled masses; instead, it’s an airy, bright, and not particularly bustling transportation terminal. A few blocks south at Sacred Heart Catholic Church—where the families get food, rest, and new clothes before they depart for points north—passersby will see only closed doors and clean sidewalks, a place that looks like any church, anywhere. Children play in the yard behind Sacred Heart’s parish hall, but it’s impossible at first glance to tell if they’re Central American asylum seekers or local children enrolled in the church’s God’s Backyard Bible Camp. There are no anti-immigrant protesters blocking Border Patrol buses like there were earlier this week in Murrieta, California. Indeed, most McAllenites have learned about the unaccompanied minors and young families pushing across the Rio Grande in record numbers in the same way most Houstonians and Chicagoans and Parisians have: from the news. The irony of life near the front lines of the border crisis is that there appears to be no crisis at all.
The invisibility of the situation is partially due to the particular nature of immigrant processing. Border Patrol apprehends immigrants near the river, promptly whisks them away to one of its stations, and then sends many of them on to other federal facilities. Unless you’re camped out on the river, it’s unlikely you’ll see any unaccompanied minors or young families anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley. And in McAllen, Pagan has played a role in ensuring that is the case.
On Tuesday, June 10, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley set up its shelter for immigrant families at Sacred Heart. Three days later, Pagan, who’d been unaware of the extent of the relief effort, received a call from one of the volunteers at the facility.
“They gave me a little bit of the story, and then I switched over to my emergency management hat pretty quick,” he says. “They were doing a great job, but that facility—they didn’t have showers, for example. They didn’t have really quite enough bathroom facilities. They were needing a little bit of medical attention. So we jumped in.”
As the city’s emergency management coordinator for the past decade, Pagan was accustomed to dealing with disaster situations like floods and hurricanes, and while taking care of hundreds of asylum seekers was a new challenge, the process was similar. He reached out to the leaders of Hidalgo County and the other cities of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and requested assistance. “We work really closely together on emergency management things,” he says, “and over time we’ve coordinated who would buy what equipment.”
Within a few days of Catholic Charities reaching out to him, he organized the city’s departments to meet their needs. (Catholic Charities’ first request: more frequent trash pick-up.) He coordinated shuttle bus loans to take families from Central Station to the church. The city provided security to watch the facilities around the clock. He handled the “upstream end,” serving as the middleman between the federal government (in this case, Border Patrol) and the nonprofits (in this case, Catholic Charities). And he became the city government’s lead spokesman on the immigration issue as media flocked to the area.
Pagan realizes his is a supporting role. “It’s really coordination and support—kind of a robust pat on the back,” he says. “My elected officials are 100 percent behind the humanitarian effort. It provides a solution to an issue that we might have had. You go down there and see a ten- or eleven-year-old person—that’s not a place where you have a debate about immigration policy. They are ten or eleven, and they’re here, and they need a shower and a meal and help to the bus station. And that’s what we’re going to do for them.”
The effectiveness of the McAllen relief effort and the invisibility of the immigrants doesn’t mean, however, that everything in McAllen is sanguine. Beneath the normalcy there’s a sense that something is amiss—“a real strong undercurrent,” says Othal E. Brand Jr., the president of McAllen’s principal water district and the son of the city’s former longtime mayor. This is a place, after all, in which cartel stash houses are hidden in plain sight, where two of the past three sheriffs—popular and beloved elected officials—have been found guilty of federal crimes, where some crime statistics are widely suspected to be doctored, and where flecks of affluence obscure the reality of one of the poorest counties in America. Part of Pagan’s job as emergency management coordinator is to minimize the impact of the undercurrent.
“I’m not going to repeat them, because I don’t want to start them, but there have been various rumors and none of them had any basis in fact,” Pagan tells me as we sit in his office. He doesn’t need to repeat them. In McAllen, I hear them everywhere.
The Mexican and Central American street gang MS-13 is sending its young recruits across the border, where they are mixing in with the civilian population of unaccompanied Central American minors. Diseases that have long been controlled in the U.S. like measles and whooping cough have flared up suspiciously in the Valley. (“Now I cross the street when I see my Border Patrol neighbors,” one born-and-bred resident tells me. “I don’t know what they’ve come into contact with.”) The drug cartels have been taking advantage of the overwhelmed Border Patrol and sending huge shipments of marijuana and cocaine in the wake of the Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, and Honduran children and families.
Pagan shakes his head at this kind of talk. “The folks that are being released into this community are no threat,” he continues. “There’s been no uptick of criminal activity in the city as a result of this, and from the public health side there just have not been issues.”
To some residents I talked to, Pagan and the other local politicians who stick to this everything-is-under-control line sound a little like Mayor Vaughn in Jaws, keeping Amity Island’s beaches open while a great white shark slowly chomps its way through the summer tourists. After all, the McAllen area is a favorite spot for “winter Texan” retirees, birders, and butterfly enthusiasts. “None of us want tourism to dry up,” one manager of a Valley business tells me. And judging by the available evidence, there’s no reason that it should. The most outlandish claims of spiking crime, disease, and drug smuggling seem to be just that: outlandish.
Still, the area’s politicians admittedly want it two ways. Mayor Jim Darling told me that he hoped the immigration crisis wouldn’t become “a story about McAllen”—emphasizing that life for his citizens is fine, normal, and unchanged—but he, Pagan, and the other area leaders still want the federal government and the state to recognize that the city is doing more than its share to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. So far, they have resisted calls to declare a state of emergency.
“When you start talking about emergencies, you’re talking about the aftermath of a tornado or earthquake or something like that,” Pagan tells me. “We don’t want to send a message that the city is in some sort of crisis or chaos. As the EMC and the city attorney, I think this qualifies as an unforeseen situation and a strain on our resources, but for the other reasons I described there’s hesitancy to [declare a state of emergency] if we don’t need to do that.”
McAllen’s government is “good, strong, [and] fiscally conservative,” Pagan says, and officials hope that the federal government will reimburse the city for its aid to the immigrant families. The burden on the city—which is not to say the immigrants themselves—may already be lessening: the Obama administration has plans to open up new detention centers for immigrant families, and while those haven’t opened yet, already the number of immigrants seen at Sacred Heart is dropping rapidly. On the final weekend of June, 513 individuals passed through the facility. During the first weekend in July, only 222 individuals came to Sacred Heart. Pagan says he doesn’t know why that’s happening and whether it’s an anomaly or the new normal.
“As a good emergency manager, I’m planning contingencies for things that might make it worse—the numbers go up, or, God forbid, we have a hurricane form in the Gulf,” Pagan continues. “And if it goes away tomorrow? Fine. If it goes to the end of the calendar year—we can do that. The load that’s being shouldered by the [nonprofits]—we always have to consider the possibility that that effort is not sustainable. But the city government? We’re not going anywhere.”