Texas cuts aid to ‘colonias’ after years of offering help
While the economy in Texas has boomed over the last 20 years, along the border with Mexico about a half million people live in clusters of cinderblock dwellings, home-built shacks, dilapidated trailers and small houses.
Texas has more than 2,300 of these communities known as colonias, the Spanish word for “colony.’’ For decades, the villages have sprung up around cities as a home for poor Hispanic immigrant families. Some are shantytowns with neither drinkable water nor waste disposal, and since the 1990s, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to improve the worst and stop new ones from forming.
But that commitment is now being questioned. In the last few months, Texas lawmakers cut university budgets that help give immunizations and health checkups to children and others in the colonias. They did not renew a key program that provides running water and sewer service. And this summer, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott abruptly shuttered the office that since 1999 has coordinated the work of various agencies in the communities.
Lawmakers who represent the border area, and groups that provide help for indigent people there, are worried that concern about the living conditions and health risks in the colonias is flagging in a state government now taking a tougher stance toward immigrants.
To some, “it all feels like the colonias are no longer a problem. That’s not true,’’ said Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, which helps residents of the colonias obtain sturdier housing. “We’re approaching going back to the ’70s and ’80s,’’ when conditions were at their worst.
Since the 1950s, Mexican migrants and families priced out of cities have jerry-built houses on cheap border scrubland from Texas to California, buying illegally subdivided lots from developers beyond the reach of utilities and building codes. Some shanties are made from scraps of plywood, with old campaign yard signs for siding and truck tires used as weights to hold down tarp roofs. Other houses are more substantial and could blend into a normal suburb. Most of the residents are in the U.S. legally, but some not.
Before her dad built a tworoom house in an area known as Little Mexico, Eva Carranza’s family lived in one half of a rundown trailer after coming across the border illegally from Reynosa. Another family lived in the trailer’s other rooms.
“The bathroom was outside. We had to go outside for everything because the water wasn’t connected to the trailer,’’ Carranza said.
Residents work in nearby cities. Carranza makes around $350 a month babysitting and cleaning homes.
The conservative Republicans who controlled Texas government in recent decades opposed illegal immigration but launched a bevy of programs to curb the sanitation problems. Public agencies extended some water and sewer lines, paved roads and looked out for illegal septic tanks and disease-breeding stagnant water.
Abbott’s office said that the state isn’t pulling back.
“It is widely acknowledged in border communities that no governor in recent years has travelled to the border and worked with local border officials more than Governor Abbott,’’ spokesman John Wittman said.
Exactly how much Texas is spending on the colonias is hard to determine with so much federal and state funding filtering through different agencies and counties. But some groups working in the colonias say they feel the support waning.
In this Wednesday, July 12, 2017 photo, a boy rides a horse through Indian Hills East colonia near Alamo, Texas. Texas has more than 2,300 of these communities, known as colonias, that have sprung up around towns and provide shelter to Hispanic immigrant families, most of whom are in the U.S. legally, but others not.