2021: Year in Review — Part 2: Border developments, hospital lawsuit, educational updates among top stories – Laredo Morning Times

Editor’s note: 2021 was another year jammed full of plenty of interesting news. LMT will be taking a look at the top stories of the year — both related to COVID-19 and not at all — in a five-part series. We’ll continue with Part 2 of 5, continuing discussion of the top non-COVID stories of the year in its own three-part series.

After being introduced to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Laredo went into 2021 with hopes to move on. And while it was able to in many ways, it was still — just like the rest of the country — unable to completely put the virus in its rear-view mirror.

Yet plenty of things did return in 2021, and the city saw more and more events return after many were in a year of hibernation. Thus Laredoans were not completely swarmed throughout the entire year by news from COVID.

Below are some of the biggest headlines this year not pertaining to the pandemic:

Border reopening

The last major local sign of the pandemic’s impact was eliminated this year.

After nearly 20 months, the U.S.-Mexico border was finally reopened to nonessential travelers in November.

It was a monumental moment for many who had been waiting for nearly two years just to see their loved ones who were on the other side.

Meanwhile, the move was just as significant for the local economy, especially with the major shopping months of November and December looming. Locals saw significant shopping activity over the holiday — the exact impact won’t be calculated for another few months — but an estimated $19 billion was previously spent in the area by Mexican shoppers.

All that translates into a major win for the sister cities, which were finally able to see a major step toward life returning to normal after the long continuing pandemic.

Border wall

During one of the most intriguing presidential elections of all-time, Laredo had an added reason to pay attention. That was due to the likelihood that a win by Republican incumbent Donald Trump would mean the construction of the border wall in the area.

With Joe Biden prevailing in the race for the Democrats, action to stop construction was seen. The federal government dropped five lawsuits against Webb and Zapata landowners challenging the government’s right to access their land in February. The Biden administration canceled 31 miles of border wall projects planned for Laredo in July. And it did so again with almost all of the remaining contracts still in place in the area in October.

However, that doesn’t mean the potential of a wall has been eliminated. Many Republicans have strongly supported the wall in political campaigns around the state, with current Gov. Greg Abbott even trying to crowdfund to pay for a border wall. Laredo sent a letter to Abbott to oppose such a move.

Additionally, the Texas Department of Public Safety also presented a border fence proposal to Laredo City Council in November. DPS said it would dissuade human smuggling and drug trafficking, and the state of Texas would build the fence at no cost to the city.

However, as the fence would be built on private property, landowners could agree or disagree with the construction. This meant there would potentially be numerous gaps in the fence at every property that said no, leading to some locals questioning the point of the fence itself under that scenario.

Council later turned down the fence, stating it stands against border walls.

While the city’s position has been against walls, increased migrant traffic at the border has led to wavering by some — most notably Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz.

Saenz in 2020 sent a letter to LMT warning the community against fighting the wall and stating the city should instead work with DHS to establish a base or campus in town for economic advantages. He had a similar letter in June stating the border was safe but not secure.

In July, the City of Laredo filed of a lawsuit against the United States to get a temporary restraining order on migrants coming to local non-governmental organizations, or NGOs — it was dismissed in August after a judge stated it had not yet provided enough clarity to warrant an emergency hearing upon the city’s request.

Saenz threatened to take other actions if the judge didn’t rule in their favor, and although they were given more time to provide that clarity to present their case, the mayor instead nixed the effort and went to “Plan B.” This was presented by Saenz as dropping the lawsuit but using upwards of $8,000 of taxpayer money a week to bus migrants elsewhere. It was clearly stated during a press conference that this endeavor would be on the taxpayers and “isn’t sustainable” but was “the least expensive alternative.”

However, City Manager Robert Eads stated soon after that this wasn’t exactly the case, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to reimburse all the funds that Laredo is paying, the city just needed to apply for a reimbursement, which it had. Just two weeks after the plan’s announcement, Laredo received nearly $2 million for migrant expenses despite having spent $90,000 to bus the migrants during that span, Eads said. And the brunt of the local efforts instead were coming down on NGOs such as Holding Institute and Catholic Charities, who took in, cared for, tested and vaccinated apprehended migrants during the pandemic.

Saenz stated the reason his migrant stance was so sharp was that locals needed first rights to hospital facilities, stating that “this is really the argument” for the judge to rule on in the initial lawsuit. But Laredo’s medical leaders have often countered the mayor on this point saying migrants have rarely been taken to these medical facilities.

Saenz then in October made his strongest comments yet, stating to a conservative Washington news outlet that “people here will be begging for a wall, a physical structure, simply because of (Biden’s) lack of attention to the border and especially the size of these surges.”

Many local officials pushed back at Saenz’s comments afterwards, and the mayor responded to the backlash emphasizing that he still supported a virtual wall.

Councilmember needs transplant

One of the city’s leaders announced this year that he is facing a major medical battle.

District I Councilmember Rudy Gonzalez Jr. shocked many locals by announcing via a video message that he was in need of a liver transplant.

Gonzalez said that he had been in and out of the hospital for about a year and was searching for a donor.

Gonzalez added that he wanted to address the situation as many had wondered why he had been out of the spotlight throughout the year.

Doctors Hospital suing LMC, Dr. Cigarroa

A significant anticompetitive conduct lawsuit was filed this year which involves both Laredo’s major hospitals and perhaps its most well-known doctor.

Doctors Hospital and the Laredo Physicians Group filed the lawsuit against Dr. Ricardo Cigarroa, The Cigarroa Heart and Vascular Institute, Laredo Medical Center and more, stating that Cigarroa has the city in a cardiology stranglehold and was unwilling to let go.

The plaintiffs stated that in August 2020 they began to actively recruit new interventional cardiologists in order to reduce the need for residents to travel to different cities for their cardiovascular needs.

However, they state that in order to monopolize the cardiology market in Laredo, Cigarroa intervened in the plaintiff’s recruitment process.

Meanwhile, Cigarroa responded by going on the attack as well, stating that it was “unfortunate that the executives Doctors Hospital have chosen to put profit above the well-being of their patients and employees” and that they are “disconnected” from the community.

Solis leaves LC

One of the biggest local figures in the world of education left the area this year.

Laredo College President Dr. Ricardo Solis departed the school to become the leader at South Texas College. He was the sixth president in LC history.

Solis expressed his gratitude toward the school as he left, stating that he would not have been able to take the position at the largest college in the Rio Grande Valley if not for them originally taking “a risk” by selecting him five years earlier.

A search committee led by board president Lupita Zepeda has been organized and is still seeking the next replacement.

In July, former Provost/Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Marisela Rodriguez-Tijerina was approved by the board to the position of interim president.


Solis was one of many that departed this year from their respective positions locally.

Among the most notable was Miguel Conchas, who retired from his position at the helm of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce in June. He had been with the Chamber for 35 years, including 29 years as the president and CEO.

Conchas was a part of the cohort of Laredoans that went to Washington, D.C. for the first time to promote the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.

The longtime UISD Superintendent Roberto Santos announced his retirement in 2020, and he did just that in 2021. After spending 38 years with the district — 16 as superintendent — Santos departed with plenty of tributes and honors. He was replaced by Associate Superintendent David Gonzalez.

Another departure from 2021 was Webb County’s Elections Administrator. Jose Salvador Tellez left his position in November with plans to return to private practice to concentrate on immigration law. He has been replaced by local attorney Jose Luis Castillo.

Laredo’s Assistant Fire Chief announced late in the year that he would also be stepping down. Ramiro Elizondo — who has been with the department for over 30 years — said in December that he plans on retiring in January of 2022.

Another departure was Laredo International Airport Director Jeffrey Miller. After more than two years at the position, he departed in October to take the Executive Director position for the Chicago Executive Airport.

Educational achievements and developments

It was another great year for education locally, with plenty of exciting storylines emerging in 2021.

While Gonzalez left his longtime position at UISD, his impact will be commemorated for years. That’s because the district unveiled the Roberto J. Santos Elementary School, complete with a mascot of a Ram to honor his alma mater of St. Edward’s and the gold and blue colors to signal its relationship feeding students into Alexander High School.

That ribbon cutting was one of many debuts. LC’s $25 million College of Health Science facility held its grand opening. UISD’s $18 million Aquatics Center was unveiled. TAMIU’s $7.5 million tennis complex held its groundbreaking, as did Cigarroa’s Middle School. The University of Texas came to the Gateway City launching the UT Education and Research Center at Laredo.

Laredo College and Texas A&M International came into significant windfalls of federal funds mostly for COVID relief. LC received over $73 million while TAMIU landed nearly $32 million. The schools also signed and renewed a memorandum of understanding to streamline transfers between institutions.

LC was also named the No. 1 community college in Texas by BestColleges for the second straight year, amid a time where it offered free tuition in the Fall.

Back in the high school ranks, UISD’s suicide prevention efforts were recognized by the Texas School Business Bragging Rights, receiving the No. 1 ranking for participating programs. And LISD welcomed in its first-ever female Police Chief in Doreen Hale.


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