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.
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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 two-room 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 traveled 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.
Doctors and medical school students at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley who provide vaccinations and free health screenings in about a dozen colonias say there will be fewer visits after losing $7 million as part of higher education budget cuts. Already, said Dr. Eron Manusov, a physician at the university’s medical school and a former military doctor who has been deployed overseas, he sees more diseases than he did in the Philippines.
“Overall, they’re going to suffer,” Manusov said of the residents. “It’s going to do great harm to the colonias.”
According to a 2014 Texas state count, the last available, more than 37,000 people lived in high-risk colonias without potable water or functional sewage. Another 126,000 residents lived in places posing an “intermediate” health risk. Last year, the rate of tuberculosis in Hidalgo County, where there are more than 900 colonias around McAllen and other border towns, was double the statewide average.
Cynthia Alonso, 28, said she has already noticed less help coming into her colonia called South Tower. “We used to have some trailers that would come with free medical help for the people. Free checkups. That no longer happens,” she said.
This year, the Legislature did not renew a cornerstone of Texas’ help for the colonias, the Economically Distressed Areas Program. The last $50 million in the fund, which connects homes with clean water and replaces open septic tanks, will likely run out in the next year, said Amanda Lavin, deputy executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board.
Another $175 million effort launched in 2001 to pave flood-prone dirt roads is all but dried up. Federal dollars that go toward programs for rehabilitating and building homes has also fallen since 2010, said Mark Loeffler a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Abbott’s decision in June to close the Colonias Initiative Program, the coordinating office for projects, surprised immigrant advocates and was viewed as a loss in the state’s attorney general’s office, which works to head off new settlements by going after illegal land developers.
“It was a great resource,” Audon Gutierrez, head of the colonia prevention unit, said of the eight-member staff. “They were folks on top of the local situation.”
Wittman called the program redundant and said money should go directly to colonias instead of funding a “bigger government bureaucracy.”
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said, officials “expect there to be no diminishment of tangible benefits to colonias residents.”
Democratic state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, who represents more than 250 colonias around El Paso, said the office’s demise reflected a tough anti-immigrant tone of this year’s legislative session, in which Abbott signed a measure that authorizes police to ask people during routine stops if they are in the country legally.
“I feel there was no political loss to go through” for cutting it, she said, because “they attacked border communities all session anyway.”