Immigration Still In Spotlight As Valley Hosts First Governor's Debate | KERA News

Immigration Still In Spotlight As Valley Hosts First Governor's Debate

Sep 19, 2014

Tonight, the eyes of the Texas will be on the Rio Grande Valley when gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott meet in Edinburg for their first televised debate. 

The Valley was also in the national spotlight this summer when thousands of undocumented children arrived from Central America. Now Gov. Rick Perry has deployed the Texas National Guard to the border. 

Some Valley residents say that publicity has unfairly stereotyped the region. 

Immigrants from Central America are still crossing the border into the Rio Grande Valley, but law enforcement say they’re apprehending only a third as many now as they did in June, when the number of children overwhelmed detention centers.

Though their numbers are small, those arriving at the Sacred Heart Church shelter in McAllen tell the same desperate stories, of traveling clandestinely for weeks with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Of being robbed or assaulted on the way.  

In a room filled with clothes, toiletries and baby formula piled high on tables, a volunteer cradles a tiny, nine-month-old from Guatemala.  She’s crying from hunger.

A volunteer tries to comfort a crying baby from Guatemala who can't nurse because her mother has eaten so little she isn't producing milk.
Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News

“The mother went so long without eating that she no longer has milk and she can’t feed her baby.  So we gave the baby soup and tried to give her formula but she doesn’t like the formula," the volunteer explained.

Another mother from El Salvador says she paid $15,000 for a coyote to smuggle her and two children into the United States because drug dealers were shadowing them at school.

“Bad people, they tried to induce them into cartels. That’s why they’re fleeing,” another volunteer said.

Catholic Charities attracted national attention when it opened this shelter. It continues to offer a place to sleep, hot meals, clothing, and phone calls home for immigrants approved by Homeland Security for travel in the United States.

Donations and volunteers have poured in from around the country. Deb Boyce, Sacred Heart’s development director, came with a group of women from Perrysburg, Ohio, and decided to stay.

“We came down because we’re mothers. We wanted to help these refugees get through their journey,” she said.

The City of McAllen also reaches out to help, but the publicity generated by the children seemed to amp up fears of border violence and danger.

In mid-June, Gov. Rick Perry and Republican leaders announced “Operation Strong Safety,” an increase in the number of Department of Public Safety troopers being sent to the border. It’s costing $1.3 million a week.

Perry then expanded the surge by deploying 1,000 Texas National Guard troops, which costs an additional $3 million a week.

McAllen Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve Ahlenius says the governor's deploying Texas National Guard troops to the border was "political theater."
Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News

“The national guard surge from our perspective was political theater,” said Steve Ahlenius, the President and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.  

He’s not sure what the Guard is doing and says sending in the military has been bad for business.

“We had 150 Japanese and South Korean auto suppliers in McAllen for a conference looking at moving their headquarters here and we had the governor going up and down the Rio Grande River in the gun boat,” he said. “It has not been helpful in terms of telling our story.”

Ahlenius doesn’t deny that drugs come over the border, but says that’s been going on for decades. He claims the violence for the most part takes place on the Mexican side.

Ahlenius hopes headlines in the future will recognize the Valley for some of its successes -- a new medical school, the Space X rocket-testing facility, new oil and gas production.

And for responding to a human crisis with compassion.