The five people vying for McAllen’s mayor seat participated in their second debate on April 21, this time taking on issues such as immigration, the local economy, public health and property taxes.
The LIBRE Initiative, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping the Hispanic community become more informed in government issues, hosted the forum.
The debate, moderated by LIBRE Texas Coalitions Director Jorge Martinez and LIBRE National Project Manager Kennedy LeFave, opened with two questions about immigration. The moderators asked what the city should be doing to make sure residents are safe while dealing with those crossing the border, and how McAllen should prepare for unaccompanied minors.
LeFave and Martinez did not specify if their term “safety” was referring to COVID-19 exposure or if they were referencing claims about undocumented immigrants committing crimes. If the latter, 2018 research from the Cato Institute shows that undocumented persons are less likely to be arrested or charged for crimes than U.S.-born residents. The research analyzed 2015 convictions data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Candidate Veronica Vela Whitacre believes the McAllen community has done a good job of coming together by donating supplies, time and energy to those at the Respite Center, despite the city taking the brunt of the cost and only being reimbursed for a portion. Earlier this week, FEMA announced $110 million available in reimbursement funds for non-governmental organizations, municipalities and government agencies that assisted with migrants on the border.
Each of the candidates was in agreeance that undocumented persons need to be treated with compassion throughout the entire process, but stressed the importance of COVID testing. However, there is little local government can do regarding immigration as it is ultimately up to the federal government to control the matter.
“We have to be in a position to engage the federal government to set up facilities, to set up a process that is more efficient, that is more caring, that is more empathetic and that takes care of these kids in a faster, quicker, better way. Move them out of our city, into their ultimate destination,” Candidate Michael Fallek said.
The five mayoral candidates were asked to give their position on whether or not the bridges should be open to travel to and from Mexico to help the local economy. Due to the pandemic, the international bridges have been closed to non-essential travel for more than a year to minimize the spread of the virus. But starting in May, the Valley International Airport will offer nonstop flights to and from Monterrey, Mexico.
All five candidates agreed the bridges need to be fully opened as soon as possible to help stimulate the local economy. Where the candidates disagreed was whether or not McAllen is currently in economically good standing after a year without international shoppers.
Candidates and city commissioners Javier Villalobos (District 1) and Whitacre (District 6) stated McAllen is in “great” standing, especially with the help of the $42.6 million in stimulus funds the city will receive through the American Rescue Plan. Candidates Othal Brand Jr. and Dr. Shahid Rashid disagreed due to per capita income and the rise in unemployment rates.
As of February 2021, the unemployment rate for the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metropolitan area is 11.9 percent. In February 2020, the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent data on per capita trends from 2019 shows McAllen’s per capita income is $14,725 lower than the median Texas per capita income.
“It is a state of denial and state of disconnect to say that we are doing great,” Rashid said in response to Whitacre and Villalobos.
Rashid emphasized the importance of reopening the international bridges, so long as there is some sort of policy in place to ensure those crossing from Mexico have received their vaccination or have tested negative for COVID.
But again, the McAllen mayor has no authority over whether or not the international bridges can return to full operation.
When posed with the question of what city ordinance each candidate would get rid of to improve McAllen’s economy, none of the candidates cited any particular local law during their minutes to speak.
Whitacre, who has sat on the ordinance committee for three years, said many of the ordinances need to be revisited and reevaluated.
“Some ordinances haven’t been visited since 1979 so slowly we have taken that task in the last three years I’ve been on the committee because we do need to catch up,” Whitacre said. “We need to redo, we need to fix some of them — a lot of them — because the times have changed.”
Brand, the son of former Mayor Othal Brand Sr., said there is overregulation in McAllen, which causes the city to lose out on opportunities from prospective developers because of lengthy processes. Fallek also cited issues with the process for new commercial or residential development. He also stated the importance of ensuring ordinances are fairly enforced across all demographics. Neither of the candidates provided detailed plans for how to implement those processes during their respective speaking times.
The moderators asked the candidates what the mayor’s role should be in overseeing a public health crisis, much like the ongoing pandemic. City Commissioners Whitacre and Villalobos admitted McAllen and other local municipalities have had limitations through much of the pandemic because the state and federal governments have the authority to enforce mandates.
As a response to the public health crisis question, Brand incorrectly stated the COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic people have lived through since 1918. From 2009-2010, the H1N1 virus or “Swine Flu” was responsible for a global pandemic. Additionally, many academics consider the HIV/AIDS crisis an ongoing global pandemic since the 1980s.
Regarding managing the city’s budget and taxes, Fallek and Villalobos suggest doing something similar to what was done this past year — prioritizing projects based on necessity and supporting local businesses and nonprofits. Rashid also agreed that now is the time to be fiscally conservative with the city’s budget. Each candidate also made it clear they were against raising property taxes.
When addressing the city’s biggest needs, the candidates mentioned traffic, drainage, unemployment and infrastructure.
Whitacre, Villalobos and Brand all acknowledged that traffic was McAllen’s biggest issue. Whitacre said two traffic studies have been done to improve traffic flow but another will likely have to be done because the city is growing at such a rapid pace.
Fallek wants to focus on prioritizing road improvements and collaborating with federal partners to increase funding for the international bridges to increase capacity and move more potential international shoppers into the city.
Rashid continued to highlight the need to lower the unemployment rate to keep the younger population in the Valley. The youth, he said, is the Valley’s greatest asset.
“We have to invest into the opportunity, how we could be able to give them a future and carve our city into that [which] could be conducive for them to progress, excel and be part of this growing city,” the physician said. “We have to do everything possible so that we could be able to retain the talent.”
A video of the forum is available on The LIBRE Initiative Texas Facebook page. Early voting ends April 27. Election Day is May 1.