TX Tribune story may lead to a misdiagnosis of colonia conditions and health problems

The second of a two-part Texas Tribune story on the colonias that ran today on the Tribune’s website and in the New York Times has me worried. Reporter Emily Ramshaw illuminates the terrible health problems faced by colonia residents. Unfortunately, the story also is likely to leave many in the dark.

The story does not make clear that most colonia residents are not undocumented immigrants, are working and, while mostly poor, are not all destitute and impoverished.  That is likely to feed the growing anti-immigrant hysteria and focus it on colonias.

The story leads off…

Laura knows what comfort feels like: Before leaving Reynosa, Mexico, for Texas a few years ago, she lived with her in-laws in a house with bedrooms and flushing toilets, with electricity and a leak-free roof. Now, the 23-year-old — since deserted by her husband — pays $187 a month to live in a dirt-floored shack that is part broken-down motor home, part splintered plywood shed. She bathes her five runny-nosed, half-clothed children, all under 10, with water siphoned from a neighbor’s garden hose. And she scrubs their diapers and school uniforms in the same sink where she rinses their dinner beans.

As she glanced sheepishly at her feet, Laura, who declined to give her name because of her immigration status, pointed out the family’s bathroom: a makeshift outhouse, only yards from the large trash pile her youngest children scale like a mountain. She would return to a better life in Mexico, she said, if she were not sure her children would have a brighter future in the United States.

The conditions in which Laura and her children live are common for the roughly half-million people living in Texas’colonias. These impoverished communities are found in all border states, but Texas, with an estimated 2,300 colonias, has the most. First established in the 1950s for migrant workers, many of the colonias (Spanish for neighborhood or community) were created by unscrupulous or predatory developers.

All you have to do is visit a few colonias to appreciate that a number of families living in colonias have managed to make a decent home despite the frequent lack of adequate public infrastructure. Very few have heaps of trash in their yards and outhouses.

The two colonias Ramshaw cites as examples in her story are among the poorest colonias overall: Agua Dulce and Mexico Chiquito. Even within such struggling communities there is some economic and social diversity. Consider colonia Agua Dulce, a community of 104 families south of the town of Weslaco. While a little over one-fifth of the families have yearly  incomes less that $15,000, the median household income is $36,381 per year. Only 14 out of the 104 households, like Laura, rent their home. Let me qualify this by saying that census data is notoriously bad. But even allowing for that, in what is unarguably a very poor and not a “typical” colonia not everyone is as destitute as Laura and her children.

Does this mean we should not concentrate on helping families like Laura’s? Of course not. This is of critical importance. But we must be careful not to present a monolithic picture of colonias and the people who live in them if we are going to figure out how to solve the problem.

So far as the example of Laura feeding the wrong stereotype that all colonia residents are undocumented immigrants, the Tribune story does finally mention, in the fourteenth paragraph, that this is not the case.

According to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, an estimated 64 percent of colonias residents were born in the United States. Eighty-five percent of those under age 18 were born here.

Immigration is political dynamite these days. Laura is the example the reporter chose to build the story around. What is the reader left to conclude but that Laura is a typical colonia resident?

Laura’s plight is shared by too many colonia residents, but neither she, nor the colonia where she lives is “typical”.

I’m not trying to denigrate the Tribune’s coverage of this very important and underreported issue.

I’m just looking for a more complete diagnosis of health problems in colonias so a cure can be found.

Read the Tribune story: Conditions, Health Risks Sicken Colonias Residents — Texas-Mexico Border | The Texas Tribune.