Local border agencies fend for themselves during crises

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Houston doing its part to keep ebola away from U.S.
EMBED <>More Videos

Charities, emergency crews, local law enforcement along the Texas-Mexico border are straining under the burden of more border crossings, with little help coming from state or federal sources.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Alma Gonzales had time to sit and talk Tuesday.

But it was just weeks ago when this worker at the La Posada Providencia shelter near the Texas-Mexico border in San Benito was busier than she'd ever been.

"It was something we hadn't experienced before," Gonzales said. "We were not prepared for it."

La Posada Providencia is a small shelter with a tiny kitchen and classrooms for the kids to learn math and English and for adults to learn English too, but also how to open a checking account or how to use a vacuum cleaner or a coffee maker.

The shelter opened in 1989 by a group of Roman Catholic Sisters to shelter poor immigrants and asylum seekers. Over 25 years, they have helped 8,000 immigrants. Most at the request of federal authorities.

Over the past eight months alone, 1,000 walked through their doors.

"It was very busy," Gonzales said. "It was non-stop. We were getting 200 to 250 people from Central America per month. In previous years, 250 people was our whole client population for the year."

The shelter housed 257 in 2012. In 2013, the number grew to 589. This past year 1,411 people were aided by the shelter.

And the government certainly isn't sending more money. The shelter is a local institution. They get little help from the federal government, relying largely on donations. It will likely stay that way.

And they're not counting on help from Washington. They seem to know that the cavalry isn't coming to save them, whether that means aid from a deadlocked Congress or money from the legislature in Austin, which talks a lot about sending state troopers to the border and less about aid to local groups on the front lines.

"All of our money comes from competitive grants, fundraisers and donations from our supporters," Gonzales said. "Pray with us. We're going to continue our efforts. We're not giving up."

It's not just charities that have been bearing the burden of the wave of newcomers pouring over the Rio Grande.

It's emergency services, too, who take call after call of border related incidents.

"You look at the call volume for those kind of calls and they are increasing," said Rene Perez with the Harlingen-based South Texas Emergency Foundation, which provides ambulance service for a large swatch of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

He gets five to eight calls a week in connection with the border, "but that number sometimes doubles," he said.

The calls vary. Dehydration, illnesses suffered on the crossings, flu and colds.

Those illegally crossing the border certainly don't pay for care.

And in most cases, the federal government doesn't reimburse the ambulance foundation, either, even though Perez and his team are responding to border calls.

"You don't get compensated for those types of calls," he said. "We get paid less than 20 percent on those calls."

They will continue to respond, though.

"You still have to serve the community," he said. "It doesn't matter what kind of call it is, you have to respond."

Perez has been following the Congressional back-fighting and failure to come up with a border bill to send more help to the Valley. He also noticed one other thing. In all the debating, no one has asked him what he and other locals on the front line need.

"We haven't had any discussion with anyone about the health care needs we've been seeing," Perez said.

Is it frustrating?

"Sure it is," he said.

Local law enforcement in the Valley is also peeling the pinch.

Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Constable Atanacio "J.R." Gaitan can't enforce federal border laws.

But he's dealing with border issues every day, whether that's getting calls from ranchers complaining about border crossers busting down fences and stealing items from food to cars to responding when the Border Patrol asks for help.

"Its picked up a lot more," Gaitan said. "It's every other day or on a daily basis."

His law enforcement team does get federal and state money to help with overtime. But Gaitan said with the strain on his constables, he'd rather than money came in the form of new hires.

"I wish we'd get more money so we could have extra boots on the ground," he said.

Producer: Trent Seibert