McALLEN — The day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was greeted to a late-night arrival at her hotel by a handful of people holding signs supporting President Trump, Pelosi and a dozen members of Congress walked into a nightclub-turned-migrant relief center in downtown McAllen on Sunday to “honor” Sister Norma Pimentel’s work and send a welcoming message to the new migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
After a morning service at La Lomita Chapel in South Mission and after tours at the Border Patrol’s migrant detention facilities in McAllen, Pelosi and her U.S. House colleagues were warmly welcomed with hugs from Pimentel and others at the new migrant facility near the downtown McAllen bus station. The group — with five members who speak Spanish — chatted with migrant adults and walked past children playing on the floor below a flat screen television that briefly flashed President Barack Obama during an episode of a recent Netflix show.
Before long, Pelosi invited a few migrants to stand up and briefly share why they left Central America, where Pelosi and the Congressional delegation had just spent the previous three days. Opportunities and safety were not available in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the migrants said, the three countries that have seen the most northward migration to the United States.
“Every one of these immigrants who comes with the hope and determination and optimism to make the future better for their families, well, those are American traits and these immigrants make America more American with their values,” Pelosi said during a news conference after the tour, and before the delegation concluded their several-day trip to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and McAllen, before returning to Washington, D.C.
Sunday’s was but one of many recent high-profile visits to the area, including separate South Texas trips by Vice President Mike Pence and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader. Other visitors stopped by on Sunday, including attorney Jessica Cisneros, a progressive Democrat who is running in the 2020 primary against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, in 2020.
Pence and Schumer, as well as the groups of U.S. senators they both brought alongside, toured the same Border Patrol migrant detention facilities Pelosi’s delegation visited on Sunday. Images of Pence and other senators separated by a fence from an overcrowded fenced-in area of migrants received national attention.
Pelosi didn’t talk specifically about the conditions she witnessed at the Border Patrol facilities on Sunday, but instead about how she believes the country should receive migrants.
“We come here to make sure that we’re honoring the dignity of the migrants coming into our country, that the conditions they’re being met with meet their needs, but that also respect their dignity and honor the values of America,” Pelosi said. “When we don’t respect the dignity of all of those migrants, we lessen ourselves.”
Pelosi then expressed the importance of seeing “how the appropriated money is being spent to improve how migrants are being treated.” Part of the recent $4.6 billion emergency spending bill for the southern border was specifically aimed at reimbursing local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for incurring the financial cost of migrants being released by federal authorities into border cities. Cities like McAllen and NGOs like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are set to apply for reimbursements.
Local officials have credited U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who, along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, sought to include the reimbursement funding in the bill. Cuellar was part of Pelosi’s group in Central America, and Pelosi on Sunday asked that he, as well as U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, speak to begin the news conference at the relief center.
Cuellar noted the reimbursement money, which has been difficult for cities like McAllen to receive due to government logjams.
“I don’t see the city manager from McAllen — I want to make sure he gets this straight,” Cuellar said, citing public remarks Cuellar said he heard McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez make about blaming Congress for its inability to provide reimbursements to the city after spending more than $1 million on migrant care since 2014.
When reached Sunday, Rodriguez called Cuellar’s comments “fair.”
“However, the city has spent over $1 million since 2014 and has been reimbursed $140,000,” Rodriguez said. “Someone has got to figure this out, and it can’t be the city of McAllen.”
Cuellar, Gonzalez and Vela were united in their praise of Pelosi. Cuellar said Pelosi understands the “essence of the Valley” due to the various trips she’s made here; Gonzalez applauded her leadership and provided translations between Pelosi and the migrants; and Vela thanked Pelosi for “listening to us” and for honoring Pimentel.
Now, Pelosi said, she wants to bring the stories she heard on this trip to Central America and South Texas to Congress.
“These stories are the most persuasive method that we have to change minds,” Pelosi said. “For example, to protect the Affordable Care Act, we had 10,000 events of people telling their stories. Stories of families — that’s why I wanted to hear the stories here of why they left.”
Pelosi added: “We’d rather be spending our resources on how we can be welcoming to newcomers to our country without having them to be victims of coyotes or whatever that are out there, but to be the United States of America — and as Ronald Reagan said, if u close the door you will stop the vitality of America that the beacon of hope that the statue of liberty represents.”