McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Three Democratic Texas lawmakers on Thursday proposed a bill in Congress to create a federal office to oversee help for migrant farmworkers, and underserved and substandard colonias on the Southwest border.
U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, of Laredo, Veronica Escobar, of El Paso, and Jasmine Crockett, of South Dallas, on Thursday filed the Office of Colonias and Farmworkers Initiatives Establishment Act of 2023.
If approved, the measure would create a special office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to coordinate federal, state and local resources to better help rural and underdeveloped colonia communities that are located within 150 miles of the border with Mexico.
Cuellar told Border Report that too often colonias are underserved, and resources do not get to those living within these sparse communities who most need it.
“They are places that basically I call them Third-World conditions in so many ways. Sometimes they don’t have water. Sometimes they don’t have roads. Sometimes they don’t have electricity. And we want to provide the basic services to those communities. So the effort is to make sure that we get all of the federal agencies to coordinate and streamline their services,” Cuellar told Border Report on Thursday.
Cuellar says he has been working to improve colonias since he was a state lawmaker in Texas back in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, he says “there’s still a lot of them that need the basic services. And I think it’s important that we focus on colonias from the federal, state, and local area to do it together.”
“It has stuck with me, since I was a state rep, about how some of the things that we take for granted — electricity, water sewage — really has an impact on a lot of those people that we sometimes ignore,” he said.
Many colonias don’t have paved roads and so school buses cannot drive into them. Many lack utilities, technology, and access to proper nutrition and health care.
Cuellar serves on the House Appropriations Committee, and he said this proposed office would find and redirect millions of dollars that were set aside and unspent from Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 to ensure the funds are used to help colonias, as well as migrant farmworkers.
There are an estimated 2,459 colonias on the Southwest border, and most — 88% or 2,100 — are located in Texas, Cuellar said.
“Colonias across our country lack fundamental and critical infrastructure,” Escobar said in a statement. “In Texas, the state legislature allowed for the proliferation of these developments without ensuring they had access to something as fundamental as water. The inadequate funding and resources at the state level make it more important that the federal government step in to uplift these families. Establishing an Office of Colonia and Farmworker Initiatives is an important component of ensuring these underserved communities have a seat at the table.
“Texas’ border communities are not political props – they are vibrant, diverse places with unique issues and needs. They are also chronically under-counted, under-served, and under-invested in, leaving local officials and organizations unable to support and serve those who call our colonias home,” said Crockett, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.
The Texas Attorney General’s office says it has undergone efforts to prevent new colonias from developing and to ensure residents have proper housing.
Several advocacy organizations that support Hispanic border communities and farmworkers say they are on board with the legislation.
“We believe that the establishment of this office is vital to the colonias communities, farmworkers, and their families, to ensure that they are aware of and receive the services that are vital for their survival and well-being,” League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) National President Domingo Garcia said.
“There is a pressing need to improve housing and community facilities in the colonias and farmworker communities. Rep. Cuellar’s legislation promises better coordination and the potential to bring a ‘whole of government’ approach to improving these communities,” said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition.
Daniel Sheehan, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program, said the legislation is “long overdue” and called it “commonsense.”
“Farmworkers are elemental to the agricultural industry, and, as such, are indispensable to national security. Yet, despite the value they bring to our nation, they are often devalued by society. This much-needed measure will help rectify that by ensuring these essential workers are aware of life-changing federal programs and have the access to participate in them to not only improve their lives and those of their family members, but also to contribute more richly to their communities,” Sheehan said.
If approved, a federal interagency coordinating committee would be formed to oversee and improve access to programs benefiting those living in colonias, as well as farmworker families. The agency also would recommend and initiate new programs to help these communities and workers, as well as technical assistance.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.