Texas cuts aid to ‘colo­nias’ af­ter years of of­fer­ing help

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

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.

AP PHOTO

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.

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