EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A group of mayors from across the United States visited El Paso to learn more about the border and the immigration crisis.
The big takeaway from their trip, however, was a closed door 90-minute meeting with acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, who was also here on Thursday.
The mayors took advantage of the meeting to press their case for the federal government to speed up commercial truck traffic at the international bridges — and issue they say affects the national economy.
“Today I asked specifically for the sake of us in El Paso to please staff the bridges fully,” Margo said after the meeting. “It is critical for us to have bridge lines fully staffed, and they haven’t been for some time. And then they take away (officers) during this humanitarian crisis. I made the plea, please get us back up to those levels.”
Margo said $108 billion dollars worth of merchandise moves across the international bridges between Juarez and El Paso every year and that hindering that activity undermines the nation’s economy.
Bryan Barnett, the mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the commercial slow-down on the Texas-Mexico border has a big impact in the auto-maker capital of Detroit.
“All of us in Metro Detroit may not be affected by the humanitarian side of the crisis, but definitely by the commerce side of this challenge. The auto industry drives our economy because 22 percent of a Ford and 17 percent of a GM vehicle is made in Mexico. Anything that affects that has a massive impact on our region,” Barnett said.
Margo said McAleenan told the mayors that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has hired 1,200 new officers so far this year and that those new hires would help improve staffing levels.
But Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Santa Teresa, New Mexico-based Border Industrial Association, said it could take up to a year for the new hires to make an impact on border wait times.
“That’s good, but the problem is that it takes a year to get that agent to operate independently, so it doesn’t necessarily make things better immediately,” said Pacheco, who did not attend the mayors’ meeting.
“Meantime we’re working with (CBP) and they have shifted hours here at Santa Teresa. They’re no longer inspecting trucks on Saturdays, but they’re operating two additional hours on weekdays.”
Margo and Barnett said the rest of the mayors who visited El Paso — some from border cities like Yuma, Arizona, others from the interior of Texas and New Mexico — will go home with a better understanding of what is happening here and with insights as to how the Sun City has made do to weather the migrant surge that began in October.
A tale of two visits
A congressional delegation less than two weeks ago left the border “appalled” at the way immigrants were being kept at a Border Patrol processing station in Clint.
But on Thursday, a delegation of mayors from across the United States described the Border Patrol facilities they toured as “pristine, clean and well-stocked”.
“I saw a clean facility, an air-controlled facility with plenty of food and drink. The facilities were clean with working restrooms and showers,” said Mayor Ken Miyagishima of Las Cruces.
Margo echoed that, saying that there was plenty of food and water and “an abundance” of animal crackers. “You know how much kids like animal crackers?” he said.
Barnett said that, in fairness, the impressions that the visiting mayors got from touring the Border Patrol processing facility were based on what they saw in two hours. And “the (immigration) officials were quick to volunteer that things are different from two months ago when they had much more people.”
Barnett said the U.S. Conference of Mayors is apolitical. “We have a saying that potholes are not Blue or Red, they’re potholes” that need to be fixed, he said.
Margo said it was good to have leaders from across the country because that allowed them to clarify misconceptions about the border and see the situation with their own eyes.
“What we are is the largest U.S. community on the Mexican border. We have been one region for 350 years in terms of commerce and everything,” he said. “This allows us to tell our story to a broad-based audience and they, in turn, can say, ‘I’ve been to El Paso, I know what it’s like. I’ve seen what’s happening.’ They can see today how dynamic we are and how safe we are as a community.”
‘Pennies on the dollar’
Congress recently approved a stop-gap $4.6 billion Border Supplemental Spending bill to deal with the migrant crisis. However, that only includes $30 million in reimbursements to local governments and nonprofits that have cared for migrants released from CBP custody.
Yuma, Arizona Mayor Douglas Nicholls said that amount was “pennies on the dollar” compared to the work and resources spent by border communities.
Margo said El Paso has spent about $200,000 on migrants and will probably end up billing the federal government for half a million by year’s end.
That reflects neither the money nor the efforts that nonprofits like Annunciation House have spent, he said.
“There is a conversation that is taking place. Cities are anxious that Congress continues to allocate money to reimburse human services providers that are addressing the needs (of migrants) on the ground,” Barnett said, adding that McAleenan is holding discussions with leaders in Mexico and Central America to address the “root causes” of migration, such as crime and poverty.