WESLACO — A Baptist nonprofit has plans to transform Weslaco’s classic Palm Aire Hotel into an intake facility for children illegally immigrating into the United States by themselves — assuming the group can get through a city permitting process.
The 600-bed facility would take children ages 12 to 17 immediately from Border Patrol custody and house them an average of 15 days, providing medical and mental health care, on-site educational programs, recreational programs and case management, said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS.
The organization, Baptist Child & Family Services, runs health and human services operations worldwide, including an existing facility in Harlingen. That would be closed and replaced with the Palm Aire, which would be double the size. BCFS hopes to open it by Oct. 1.
Piferrer said exact renovations to the motel were undetermined, but would adhere to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services licensing standards and would include fencing around the property and security precautions. She added that one major appeal of the Palm Aire was outdoor space.
“This facility shows great promise for this program, because it allows for outdoor recreation facilities,” she said. “Soccer is a favorite among the youth that we serve. We would establish a fence around the perimeter.”
The hotel’s site, at the southeast corner of Expressway 83 and International Boulevard, would put the facility among businesses including BBVA Compass and The Blue Onion. It would be catty-corner from where the city has proposed locating the new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley headquarters.
Hidalgo County leaders, including Judge Ramon Garcia and Pct. 1 Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, have been proponents of the project.
“I think we could use something like that in Weslaco,” Cuellar said. “Anytime that humanitarian problems happen I’m interested, especially when it involves kids.”
He added that the project, which BCFS said will employ 650 people and have an annual economic impact of some $50 million, would be a major development boon.
But city officials tapped the brakes on the plan in early June by insisting the project obtains a conditional use permit, resisting pressure from those involved in the deal to move more quickly and allow it to operate without one.
Ultimately, City Attorney Ramon Vela issued a formal opinion, saying he believed the proposed intake facility qualified as assisted living and would require a permit.
“The city of Weslaco needs to determine if any conditions need to be placed on the type of operation that is going to be there, what children will be allowed or not allowed, how many children will be allowed, whether the operation of this facility will or will not impose on the adjoining landowners in the use and enjoyment of their property,” he wrote.
Key among the questions of some city leaders is whether, if the number of child immigrants dropped, the facility could ever be used to process adults. The permitting process will allow the city to restrict the hotel’s use and place conditions such as fencing and other requirements.
After much back-and-forth, BCFS applied for the permit Wednesday. It is expected to be heard before Planning & Zoning July 30 and the City Commission Aug. 5.
Real estate brokers Michael Blum and Sally Fraustro Guerra, who are representing the buyer and seller respectively, said the property had been under contract for a while but was waiting on the permit. The closing date, originally Saturday, has been put on hold.
City Manager Leo Olivares said the city was trying to strike a balance between a high-value humanitarian project and the reactions from people in the area not used to an immigrant shelter in such a high-profile location.
“If we put some restrictions on it we have more protection — the Palm Aire is well known in the Valley,” he said. “We’re being responsible, I think. We’re not giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want and the public has the opportunity to be involved in that process.”