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State Waits for Directions to Declassify Colonias

The state has worked for decades to halt the proliferation of colonias, but it has no way to declassify communities that have outgrown the colonia description.

A young girl plays outside her home in the Pueblo de Palmas colonia near Mission, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2013.

For decades, Texas has worked to halt the proliferation of colonias — unincorporated, impoverished communities along the U.S.-Mexico border that lack basic amenities like water service and paved streets.

And despite the state spending millions of dollars, it’s difficult to gauge whether it has made significant progress in improving life in these communities. That’s because the state has no way to declassify communities that have incorporated or acquired these basic amenities.

Colonias, which date back to the 1950s, exist in the four states that share a border with Mexico. They were created by cagey real estate developers who sold cheap tracts of low-quality land to poor, mostly Hispanic migrants. With more than 400,000 residents living in its colonias, Texas is home to the largest colonia population and has the highest number of colonias with more than 1,400 in the state.

The state has poured money into these communities, providing funding for paved roads and to connect to water and wastewater systems. But the Colonia Initiatives Program, which is overseen by the secretary of state’s office, has no way to remove developed communities from the state’s colonia database.

For years, the program has asked lawmakers to address the state’s lack of a statewide colonia definition and create a declassification mechanism for communities that no longer exist in dire conditions. But with a March 13 filing deadline looming in the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers have not filed any bills in response to the Colonia Initiatives Program’s request, and it is unclear whether it will even be addressed.

Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said its request to the Legislature is a “housekeeping measure” that would help assess the communities where Texans still live in precarious conditions and align the seven definitions of colonias that various state agencies maintain.

Those definitions are used to determine whether these communities qualify for federal and state funding and vary because different agencies consider different characteristics, like a lack of running water, when determining if they’re eligible for funding. In fiscal year 2014, at least $109.6 million in federal and state funds went to projects and initiatives benefiting colonias, according to the Colonia Initiatives Program.

The Colonia Initiatives Program asked the Legislature to address the definition and declassification issues in its 2010 and 2014 reports to the Legislature, but no action has been taken, and several lawmakers representing border districts were unaware of the program’s requests.

Democratic state Sen. José Rodríguez, whose West Texas district includes hundreds of colonias, said he supports establishing a statewide definition of a colonia and creating a method to declassify colonias.

“We have to be efficient with the limited resources we have,” Rodriguez said. “If we don’t have a sense of which colonias have actually progressed beyond the colonia designation … then we ought to have a system for declassifying those colonias.”

But he questioned whether legislation was even needed to address the issue, suggesting that the cluster of state agencies that work with colonias could establish a general colonia definition and declassification method. 

One possible declassification method the state could use is a “checklist” approach, said Jose Luis Gutierrez, associate regional director of Texas A&M University’s Colonias Program. Communities that want to be recognized as colonias already must submit applications to the state in which they list the basic amenities, like running water and paved roads, they lack. To verify that a community has since acquired those services and should be declassified as a colonia, Gutierrez said, the state could go back and review those applications.

“You’d figure it would be simple,” Gutierrez said, adding, "But you know how we are in Texas — we like to make things complicated and proper.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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