fb-pixel Skip to main content

Texas border town becomes reluctant center of immigration fight

McALLEN, Texas — The menu at Maria’s Restaurant, about seven miles from the US-Mexico border, is a reflection of the blended community it has served for 41 years.

But now this town, which was built on immigration, has become ground zero for the nation’s nastiest political battle in the angry summer of 2018.

‘‘This is a border culture, so these people are not monsters to us,’’ said Carolina Garza, 31, a third-generation Mexican-American whose family runs Maria’s.

She was talking about the masses of Central American immigrants flowing across the southern US border by the thousands this summer seeking asylum, work, and refuge from their violent homelands.


McAllen is home to the massive US Customs and Border Protection facility where families crossing the border illegally have been separated and children have been housed under the administration’s ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policy.

The separations of about 2,400 children from their parents have sparked protests across the country. McAllen has suddenly become world-famous for something that it has no control over, which residents say is at odds with the city’s bicultural nature.

Hundreds of activists, lawyers, protesters, religious leaders, journalists, a heavy presence of federal law enforcement officers and even National Guard troops have poured into this city and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley in recent weeks.

The policy is seen as unwanted and unfair in this border city of 142,000, whose population is 90 percent Hispanic and so fully bilingual that roadside signs say ‘‘No dumping basura’’ (trash).

‘‘A lot of people want to blame McAllen for what’s happening,’’ Garza said. ‘‘It feels kind of disgusting, to be honest.’’

As McAllen prepared for its massive annual Fourth of July parade and fireworks display of patriotism, this city found itself feeling like a punching bag in the furious national immigration debate.

Mayor Jim Darling, who keeps US, Mexican, and Texas flags in his downtown office, said McAllen has suffered because of some of Trump’s statements and policies.


‘‘I wrote the president, and I said, ‘We’re Americans, too, and some of the rhetoric hurts Americans,’ ’’ he said.

Darling said that although McAllen is often portrayed as a ‘‘dusty border town,’’ it is a vibrant industrial hub closely linked to factories across the border in the industrial city of Reynosa.

He said McAllen has 18 million visitors a year, about 40 percent of whom come from Mexico. For decades, La Plaza Mall has been a destination for Mexican shoppers, who obtain a US border crossing card. McAllen raises more sales tax per capita than almost any other Texas city — about $60 million last year.