Parker Abt is a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Americans in Puerto Rico have spent weeks without reliable access to clean water, electricity and cellphone service. The conditions on the ground remain deplorable, with shattered homes and damaged infrastructure everywhere.
But what if hundreds of thousands of Americans lived in these conditions for generations and no one noticed? That’s exactly what some border communities in Texas experience on a daily basis: third-world conditions compounded by public and official indifference to their plight.
In the “colonias” of the American Southwest, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have lived without running water for decades (not to mention the lack of electricity, sewage treatment and drainage). Homes are built without regard for safety codes or regulations. The result is structures that look like shacks, hastily built by residents with little money and even less construction expertise.
Some colonia houses have dirt floors and fit a full family in a single room. Many families in the colonias live on less than $250 a week. I visited one colonia this past summer where a family showed me the blackened shell of their house, which burned to the ground after firefighters took 30 minutes to arrive at the scene.
One might think that colonias are just communities of immigrants living in the United States illegally, but most colonia residents are full-fledged American citizens. As citizens and taxpayers, residents demand and deserve the same basic government services as everyone else.
This begs the question: How does the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, allow third-world shantytowns to exist within its borders and house its citizens?
Colonias are communities usually built near the U.S.-Mexico border by poor Hispanic immigrants. For the federal government, the defining element of a colonia is that it has no access to clean water. These communities are the result of Texas’s light regulatory system combined with the construction of colonias on cheap, unused land outside of established city limits.
Colonia land is so cheap partly because it is prone to flooding. Children often have trouble attending school because they cannot reach school buses after overnight thunderstorms flood the streets near their houses. This further deprives families of education as a path out of poverty.
The flooding and generally poor sanitary conditions also produce contaminated wastewater where diseases flourish. Colonias have high rates of diseases rarely found in developed countries, such as tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery. It was a threat of a cholera outbreak in the 1980s that spurred federal inquiries into the colonias.
When the government does provide services to colonias, its effort can be woefully inadequate. For years, residents of the Cyndie Park II colonias outside Corpus Christi, Tex., drank well water contaminated with arsenic, a highly toxic carcinogen. After finally confirming in 2011 that the water contained arsenic, it took the state six years to allocate money for city water pipes.
“The county didn’t tell the residents there was arsenic in the water and they kept drinking it,” said Lionel Lopez, director of the South Texas Colonia Initiative, which has aided Corpus Christi colonias for decades. “Lots of people there get cancer early.”
Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Corpus Christi, was a near-catastrophe for the colonias. Help from relief groups such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was essentially nonexistent. Lopez said that when residents applied for FEMA aid, they were told they didn’t qualify.
Meanwhile, county and state governments are slow to act during crises. There was a push for funding to provide water and other services in these communities in the early 1990s following the cholera outbreak threat, but those efforts have since faded away.
Texas, where more than 90 percent of colonias are located, heavily cut colonias aid programs this year. Particularly harmful was the firing of all the state’s ombudsmen, local citizens who specialize in connecting the colonias to government aid programs and block grant sources.
That’s typical of government responses to colonias. Lawmakers only kick into gear when news of cholera spreads and newspaper headlines describe colonias as “third world.” Then they pull back slowly as pressure dies down.
It is a travesty that the United States leaves citizens without access to clean water. As the federal government continues to aid Puerto Rico after its catastrophe, it should also remember those in the mainland colonias who have gone without basic services for decades. We cannot allow the colonias to recede into obscurity yet again.