New federal bill hopes to streamline colonia, farmworker programs in Texas and beyond

The bill would help address accessibility issues for the thousands of colonias in the U.S., most of which are in Texas.

Michael Trevino

A new bill introduced to Congress Thursday aimed to help colonia residents in Texas and farmworkers across the country.

The Office of Colonias and Farmworkers Initiatives Establishment Act of 2023 would establish an office of the same name within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The office would serve as the hub for federal colonia and farmworker assistance programs, along with providing technical assistance for applying for funds from those programs. The office, along with a Colonia Coordinator, would help nonprofit organizations, colonia residents and farm workers navigate the various federal housing, health care, and infrastructure programs.

The bill will also try to help define what a colonia is, along with how many there are. Current estimates show nearly 2,500 colonias exist in the U.S., spread across Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The Rio Grande Valley has most of them, seconded by El Paso County, and all of them are within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 500,000 people live in these communities. In the Rio Grande Valley, the first colonias were created after an exodus of farm owners from the region who initially came down to take advantage of the "Magic Valley." Disease, insects and extreme weather would routinely destroy crops in the area. So, farm owners, via developers, sold their land to the Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans who labored it. The land had no infrastructure, was usually illegally divided into plots and subdivision and was stripped of its topsoil, making it flood-prone. It's an issue that continues today.

Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) and Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas) introduced the bill on Thursday.

"I think the first piece of legislation I ever worked on was in 1989 dealing with colonias," Cuellar said to TPR about filing the bill. "And here we are in 2023, and we’re still talking about colonias because they still haven’t been provided all the water, sewage that they need."

Cuellar, while Secretary of State in 2001, oversaw the state's Colonia Initiatives program. That program put six ombudsman in counties with high colonia populations, two of which were in the Rio Grande Valley. They were liaisons between the communities and the state, advocating for their infrastructure needs. Texas Governor Greg Abbott cut funding for that program in 2017, saying state agencies offered the same assistance to colonias.

Cuellar says this federal program would operate similarly as Texas' Colonia Initiatives program. "In many ways, it’s the same concept that I helped establish in 1999," Cuellar said.

TPR has covered previously that colonias are still enduring issues like contaminated water with no political advocacy. The lawmakers involved with the bill hope to change this.

"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."

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