Gonzalez, D-Texas, led the event in his district with the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. The committee also held a field hearing with Chair Jim Himes, D-Conn., and Reps. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, and others.
At the Indian Hills colonia settlement and others like it, residents live in extreme poverty in homes that often resemble little more than shacks. Built in rural areas near the Mexican border with little regulation, most colonias lack running water, sewage treatment, broadband and other key infrastructure.
“We have American citizens living in third world conditions in this country,” Gonzalez told Fox News Digital. “And while we’ve spent trillions of dollars on infrastructure and in this country, we need to assure that they’re not left behind and that we uplift their standard to the rest of the world, the rest of the country.”
The issues go beyond just sanitation to other major obstacles affecting how people can get ahead in life, local residents and officials said. Many colonias lack paved roads. Like much of southern Texas, the colonias struggle with flooding due to insufficient water drainage infrastructure. During that flooding, poorly built colonia homes often take on water, which can pose health hazards for residents.
Local resident and former Monte Alto ISD school board member Connie Villanueva said at a roundtable with committee members Friday that a lack of broadband made remote learning even worse for colonia children than their peers elsewhere.
You could give children a mobile hotspot for remote learning, Villanueva said, but it was “like the old days when it was dial-up” because of poor cell service.
Dirt roads that flood even hurt children’s learning, Villanueva said.
“Our buses take a beating,” she said. “Children do not come to school for days or weeks depending on if the road drains or dries up.”
Another issue some community members highlighted is that dirt roads slow down emergency vehicles and cause sinus problems in small children due to dust getting kicked up.
Himes said the federal government needs to adjust its funding formulas to ensure communities like those unincorporated colonias in South Texas get the resources they need to move into the 21st century.
“Some very poor counties won’t get any CARES [Act] money because they have to seek reimbursement. But of course, they don’t have the cash to do the outlays in the first place,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing we have to fix.”
“What I advocate for in Washington is to find ways to assure that money can go directly down to communities that need them and not have to go through conduits of state governments or even county governments,” Gonzalez said of one of his proposed solutions. “We need to find ways to get down directly to municipalities and directly to families that are hurting and that need the resources.”
Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, meanwhile, highlighted that the McAllen area in South Texas is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without direct access to an interstate. That handicaps its economy and even further harms its ability to secure federal funding, he said at the select committee hearing.
“Many times our projects don’t compete because the grant funding is measured on the same metrics as urban projects are,” Garza said. “It’s hard to compete with areas that have had interstates for the last 40, 50 years.”
Republicans, meanwhile, spoke out against what they said is a bloated federal bureaucracy that’s making it hard to get federal dollars for infrastructure projects in South Texas. They also alleged that a lack of border security is redirecting resources in South Texas that could be going to improve the lives of locals.
“How do we underwrite that project, versus how you underwrite it in Oklahoma City versus how you underwrite it in New York City, versus how you underwrite it in Miami,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said. “They’re all different areas, but they’re trying to use, like, these large buckets.”
“I think we should really explore how the federal government can partner with local areas to meet this need,” Steil said of damaging floods that wreak havoc on colonias. “Flood infrastructure costs millions of dollars.”
“Instead, what’s so frustrating when I hear from folks here is that the federal government and local resources… are being needed to address a different crisis,” Steil continued. “And as the porous border costing the state of Texas and cities across the Rio Grande Valley millions of dollars each year.”