Cuellar to Abbott: Reimburse McAllen for humanitarian expenses

July 15, 2017

For three years, the state of Texas has avoided reimbursing border communities money spent on humanitarian relief efforts during the immigrant waves of unaccompanied minors that inundated the region — stating that those communities were not eligible under federal rules to be reimbursed.

But on Friday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling hoping to clear up any ambiguity regarding legislation that Cuellar introduced years ago designed to do the very thing the state has avoided doing.

“I understand that there was a misunderstanding between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Governor’s Office that led to the assumption that the use of FEMA’s State Homeland Security Program federal funds to reimburse communities was not allowed,” Cuellar wrote in a letter obtained by The Monitor.

“I have since contacted FEMA to provide further clarification to the State of Texas stating that border communities are allowed to be reimbursed for their humanitarian assistance going back to 2014.

“There is, now, without a doubt clarification that the State of Texas can tap into its average of $20 million a year from the State Homeland Security Program’s federal dollars to reimburse our communities,” the letter states.

The city has spent more than $500,000 on immigrant humanitarian aid since 2014 and has yet to be reimbursed. Although Cuellar got Congress to appropriate money for local reimbursement, the money flowed through FEMA to the state for distribution.

Initially, the money was to be distributed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which held the reimbursement funds for unknown reasons. But when pressed, DPS officials said the money was now in the purview of the governor’s office.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Cuellar, who has said the money remains stuck with Abbott, have been working to get McAllen compensated.

Cuellar said he contacted FEMA officials to clear up a misunderstanding about which cities were eligible for reimbursements for expenses used on humanitarian efforts.

Cuellar said in addition to the letter, he included a copy of a memo drawn up by FEMA officials Friday outlining why the city is owed federal funds to cover costs incurred during a wave of unaccompanied children more than three years ago.

Abbott’s office to this point has said that FEMA informed them that McAllen’s expenses are not eligible for federal reimbursement using current appropriations. However, the Houston Chronicle reported that FEMA officials said humanitarian relief costs are reimbursable.

In a letter addressed to Abbott dated July 14, Cuellar sets out to clarify any misunderstanding about the language in the State Homeland Security Grant Program and how it pertains to the reimbursement sought by the city.

In the attached information bulletin made official Friday, FEMA officials state under the section related to allowable costs, the bulletin states the city would be eligible to use grant funds related to providing humanitarian relief for children.

“This (information bulletin) applies to HSGP recipients along the Southwest border for costs related to providing humanitarian relief to unaccompanied alien children and alien adults accompanied by an alien minor. Through several appropriations acts, Congress has expanded the allowability for the use of Fiscal Years (FY) 2013 through 2017 State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants to ease the burden on state and local jurisdictions along the Southwest border caused by the influx of unaccompanied children and families,” the memo states.

Darling and City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez have said the city has been actively seeking reimbursement, but Darling said earlier in the week he has not yet had a chance to personally talk with Abbott about it. Darling said before the recent state legislative session, which ended in May, that the city would keep pressing the state for the money.

Abbott, who is in the area kicking off his re-election campaign, is expected to meet with Darling Saturday.

Darling said Thursday he plans to ask the governor why he has withheld a federal reimbursement to the city of McAllen.

Cuellar said Friday afternoon that it is now up to the governor to “do the right thing.”