By Ayse Kelce
Two days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbot issued a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of Covid-19, a water main broke in an informal settlement, known as a colonia, near Clint and the U.S.-Mexico border, leaving residents without water for more than 14 hours.
“It was really frustrating because, remember, one thing we tell people is wash your hands,” said state Representative Mary Edna González, whose District 75 covers the Clint area, east of El Paso. “If you don’t have any water, and then all the stores are out of bottled water…It was just chaos.”
González, speaking during a Zoom interview on May 24, about 10 days after the incident, added that the lockdown had exacerbated the difficult living conditions, caused by a lack of basic resources, that residents of colonias had long faced.
Colonias are unincorporated neighborhoods around the U.S.-Mexican border that experience issues with accessing internet connections and potable water and often lack sewer systems, garbage pickup, paved roads as well as safe and sanitary housing. With the spread of the coronavirus, these largely immigrant communities are facing additional, unique challenges when it comes to accessing education, receiving Covid-19 relief from the federal government and getting accurate census counts.
States along the border, such as Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, have high numbers of immigrant populations and colonia settlements. Texas has the biggest population of colonias with around 500,000 people living in 2,294 colonias, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Marcelino Navarette, 61, who lives in one of these incorporated neighborhoods around West El Paso, said access to water is an issue in his neighborhood as well.
“We haven’t had water here for the 22 years that I’ve been here. It is a little unfair for the representatives of El Paso or the county not to help us with regards to the water service,” he said in Spanish, after struggling to find a spot in his house where the phone connection would not be lost.
He explained that in his neighborhood, residents buy water from companies that deliver it in trucks, charging around $100 for about 1,200 gallons. “There’s mainly only two trucks that deliver water,” he said, adding that during the summer months, the wait time increases to get water. With the coronavirus, waits are already long.
Accessing water is not the only struggle for colonia residents. “We do have light in our homes, but around the streets, everything is just dark,” he said.
Colonias started forming in the 1950s for low-income individuals–most of them immigrants– seeking affordable housing in rural areas.
“The colonias are typically a response to wanting that same suburban house, but without the ability to get into the debt system that finances houses for the mass of consumers,” said Prof. Josiah Heyman of the University of Texas at El Paso.
Heyman, an anthropologist who is the director of UTEP’s Center for Interamerican and Border Studies, explained that colonias are often home to working class people like construction or service workers who manage to get together some money to purchase a piece of land and build a mobile house.
Navarrete’s son Dan, 34, was raised in the colonias from the age of 9. He agrees that his community needs easier access to water and internet connection the most, especially since the coronavirus lockdown forced residents to stay home.
“One of my cousins was going to school and they’re sending him all the classes online but he’s having a hard time getting access to the internet,” said the younger Navarrete. The cousin, who goes to high school in El Paso, returned to Juarez, Mexico, just across the border, after the schools closed because his parents were in Mexico and the sketchy internet connection in the colonias was not allowing him to catch up with schoolwork.
“I think it’s better for him over there because over here he won’t have access to the internet because the schools are closed, and the libraries are closed,” the younger Navarrete said. “There’s no way for him to access his homework,” the younger Navarrete said.
Dan Navarette currently lives in East El Paso in a mobile home with his wife and two kids and works in the oil fields in New Mexico. He considers himself to be one of the lucky ones who still gets paid a minimum amount without having to go to work; due to the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, his company laid off many workers. “It’s a program that the company has,” he said, adding that most people in his community work in construction or warehouses. “They’ll lay you off for a month, but they’ll still pay you for it. Not your whole salary but something you can live off of.”
Along with infrastructure and internet issues, colonia residents also are mostly on their own when it comes to health care during this pandemic.
“In Texas specifically, we have done a really bad job of providing rural health,” González said. She explained that while Covid-19 testing is key to slowing the spread of the virus, many colonia residents were having difficulty getting to test sites.
She said that for some people, the closest site was 40 minutes away.
“So it’s 80 minutes away, back and forth. That’s just driving; most families don’t have cars or have one vehicle per family,” she explained. “Showing symptoms, there’s no way that they can even get 80 miles, especially if there are kids and there’s all this complexity. We have not done enough to do mobile sites.”
Marcelino Navarette said that even before the coronavirus pandemic, he had similar difficulties getting medical care. “Since the closest hospital or any access to medical services are so far away, sometimes it takes a whole day, even when you have an appointment because we have to drive,” he said. He explained that there were no clinics close to where he lives, and getting to and from the nearest hospital–a 15 mile drive–is very time consuming.
Texas’ efforts to inform Texans about the coronavirus pandemic also failed to reach the colonias, according to González. “I don’t think we’ve had enough bilingual communication,” she said. “The governor has been doing a lot of press conferences and they are sending out a lot of resources. But it’s all in English. More than 40 percent of the border colonias have limited English proficiency, according to the data shared by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
The coronavirus lockdown has worsened the economic hardships faced by residents of colonias, whose median household incomes are less than $30,000. According to Dallas Federal Bank, 73.1 percent of colonia residents are U.S. citizens, meaning that the rest, nearly 30 percent, were undocumented or not naturalized, making them ineligible for federal coronavirus stimulus funds. Additionally, married couples who file taxes jointly are also unable to access stimulus funding if one of them is an undocumented immigrant. This decision largely affects communities like colonias whose residents depend heavily on public assistance and where many families have various members with different immigration statuses.
Local politicians and non-profit organizations have stepped up to offer additional assistance for residents of the colonias, but they say not enough help is reaching people in need. The Border Network for Human Rights has been working with González to provide resources through private donations. González described their work as a “Band-aid situation.”
“Although we are appreciative of the trillions in stimulus funding provided by the federal government to date, few of the programs created provide relief for immigrant families,” González and five other state representatives wrote in a letter to their congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar. “Their inclusion in stimulus funding is necessary to ensure that they too have the resources to stay home to slow the spread of Covid-19 without losing their livelihoods.”
“Immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, are part of the backbone of El Paso and communities across Texas and the nation,” the letter continued, thanking Escobar for her work in the Congress so far.
The coronavirus lockdown also could impede efforts to secure government funding for future improvements because it is making it more difficult for residents to participate in the 2020 U.S. Census. Getting accurate census counts also gets harder in the colonias as one third of the residents do not have citizenship.
“Some people that I know who don’t have any legal papers to be here…are very afraid of someone coming up to them and asking questions in their house,” Dan Navarette said. He added that he still has not received his census form in mail, but his parents who live farther from the city limits have.
The elder Navarette said that he had filled out the census, but he is not hopeful that having an accurate count will actually bring public services to his neighborhood since he has not seen any changes in many years.
Indeed, Navarette is an exception. The average census response rate in Texas is just 48 percent,” according to González. Her census efforts have moved online because of Covid-19 and the need for social distancing, mainly to platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Those efforts, however, are least likely to reach the colonias.
#2020Census participation will help ensure our communities get their fair share of funding for programs we need for strong families. Self-respond online at https://t.co/oCRUonr42M or call 844-330-2020 for English 844-468-2020 for Spanish. #txlege #hagasecontar #LatinxsCount pic.twitter.com/Adf0hFwMKz
— Dr. Mary E. Gonzalez (@RepMaryGonzalez) April 17, 2020
When asked about voting in the upcoming 2020 election, Dan Navarette laughed. “Right now for me, elections or voting are not in my mind. Right now, it’s about being safe and go buy whatever you need for groceries and come back home,” he said.
The younger Navarrete said that some colonias were 50 miles away from voting stations in schools, which discouraged a lot of people from voting in the past. His father added that local politicians informed them about where to go and vote, but it still was not enough.
“I don’t feel that it really makes a difference. Because for these 22 years that I have been out here, really nothing has changed,” he said.