In Texas, free trade puts border colonias in spotlight

Communities of rural poor are growing fast - and drawing lawmakers' attention.

Hidden among the cornfields of Hidalgo County, down dirt paths and along riverbanks, live tens of thousands of people. Too poor to afford regular housing, many live in makeshift homes, build community outhouses, and truck in their water.

And their numbers are growing fast.

These shantytowns, called colonias, are home to 1 of every 5 residents of the 14 Texas counties along the US-Mexico border - counties whose population has surged by almost one-third since 1990.

The persistent growth of colonias, coming at a time when free trade was supposed to be alleviating poverty in Mexico and along the border, is drawing increasing scrutiny by Texas lawmakers - and raising questions about a possible hemisphere-wide free-trade zone.

"Our countries are becoming increasingly interrelated. And with all of its warts, the border area ... is where things are being tested and proven," says Kermit Black of the Center for Housing and Urban Development at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Indeed, since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), economic progress along the border has been accompanied by problems - ones that could impede further success if not taken care of soon, experts say.

The Texas state Legislature is taking greater notice. After years of faltering efforts, lawmakers in Austin are now pushing more than a dozen bills related to colonias - far more than past years - in an effort to improve health and safety, as well as to stop the colonias' growth.

And outside of Texas, the conditions of life along the border here are being watched as important indicators about the potential, or pitfalls, of free trade.

Now, 34 countries have essentially agreed to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, basically NAFTA on a hemispheric scale. This deal goes further on dealing with issues such as poverty, the environment, and labor - though critics question how successful the steps will be.

Many expected NAFTA to help Mexico's economic development in areas far from the border - and in the long run that may happen.

But for now, communities are exploding in population as Mexicans continue to be lured north by prospects of better, higher-paying jobs in maquiladoras. Those jobs, south of the border, are limited, and many Mexicans end up crossing illegally to seek work in the US.

Today, several of the 14 border counties in Texas are considered to be the poorest in the country.

Consider Sanchez Ranch, the oldest colonia here in Las Milpas, a rural area south of the city of McAllen.

Thirty years ago, a rancher began renting out space to migrant farm workers on a few acres of land. Lacking city services, residents would pay the rancher $50 a month for water. There was no electricity, no sewer, no trash pickup, no paved roads, no mail delivery.

Today, it remains much the same.

Many other colonias began just as unscrupulously. Developers would buy tracts of undeveloped land and sell them cheaply. It wasn't until 1995 that Texas passed a law prohibiting the sale of land without basic services.

In this legislative session, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville has proposed a bill to give border counties limited ability to create ordinances.

"Unless we curb the future growth of colonias, we are going to be fighting an uphill battle on so many other fronts," says Senator Lucio. Other bills this session include ones to provide $175 million in road-paving bonds for colonias and $75 million for affordable housing.

But some critics say lawmakers are tackling the wrong end of the problem. Poverty is the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed, says David Arizmendi, executive director of Proyecto Azteca, which helps the poor become homeowners.

"They are making this into a law enforcement issue. But simply prohibiting a certain kind of construction doesn't get at the root cause of the problem," says Mr. Arizmendi. "These people are supporting families on $7,000 a year."

The group helps build 65 homes a year in colonias, with some 3,000 people on the waiting list.

While local groups like Proyecto Azteca struggle to keep up with the mounting problems within the colonias, the needs are still relatively unknown outside the region. Very few national advocacy groups are working here yet. "I can't think of an area of greater need," says Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of Children's Defense Fund, based in Washington.

Ms. Edelman came to McAllen last week to open the group's newest office, aiming to improve health care in a state where 1 in 4 children lacks coverage.

Holding his 2-year-old son, Arturo Lopez is trying to make that investment. Up until now, he was unable to afford healthcare for his three children and struggled to afford care at a local clinic. Under a new state program, he qualifies for low-cost insurance. Mr. Lopez quietly admits he is grateful for the aid. "A lot of us need help," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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