Six grandchildren. Six different breakfasts.
Every morning, 69-year-old Teresa de Lozoya whips up what she can manage from food bank supplies and leftovers from church meal programs: a bowl of Ramen noodle soup, hot dogs scrambled with eggs, reheated plain hamburgers. Her deteriorating mobile home in Indian Hills, Texas, will have already reached the high 80s well before noon in the summer heat.
“I’ve been trying to save money for years to get the supplies to fix the walls and floor, but it always ends up going to something else that’s more important at the time,” she said.
Teresa’s daily struggles illustrate the common problems for low-income families along the Texas-Mexico border, and President Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts would erect a different kind of wall that will make it even harder for these families to escape the cycle of poverty.
Teresa feeds her six grandchildren meals prepared with food bank supplies or church meal program leftovers. Teresa’s adult daughter works as a medical assistant and is the only financial provider for the home while Teresa watches her daughter’s children.
Approximately half a million low-income, immigrant Latinos like Teresa live along the Texas-Mexico border in almost 3,000 colonias — informal settlements built on cheap plots of land that tend to flood easily and lack a combination of electricity, paved roads, water and sewage systems.
President Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposal outlines cuts to Medicaid and anti-poverty programs that provide welfare and food assistance, which help the families living in colonias make ends meet. GOP representatives are currently working to make those cuts a reality, while already approving $1.6 billion in spending to begin funding Trump’s border wall.
The No. 2 Senate Republican and Texas senator, John Cornyn, told The Dallas Morning News that though “hypothetical,” the Medicaid cuts represent “the hard choices you have to make” when the country is $20 trillion in debt.
Programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are sometimes the only safety net for these families, in which adults often work multiple minimum-wage jobs and still do not make enough money to get by.
Forty percent of colonia residents live under the poverty line, and the median household income in these communities is less than $30,000, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
And while the national average of people who rely on government assistance programs is 11 percent, it’s nearly four times that amount in colonias at 40.3 percent. This is because most colonia residents work low-income jobs in agriculture, construction and the service industry, so they need the assistance to survive.
Teresa’s adult daughter lives with her and works as a full-time medical assistant, relying on her mother to watch her four children during the summer since they cannot afford childcare. Two additional grandchildren live with Teresa after their mother was jailed.
Teresa quit her usual job as a home care provider to care for the children, but she and her daughter consequently struggle to pay the bills — her electricity payment can creep upwards of $240 and up to $130 for water services.
After paying bills, Teresa usually devotes the remaining family income on things like secondhand clothes for her grandchildren, diapers for one of her disabled grandchildren, or repairs to constant damages on her truck sustained by massive neighborhood potholes.
“On top of all of that, my daughter’s food stamps amount was lowered to $63,” Teresa said, attributing the reduction to the slightly higher pay rate at her daughter’s new job. “What can you do with $63?”
Teresa’s family additionally relies on Medicaid to pay for doctor’s visits for her 8-year-old grandson with cognitive and physical disabilities. Without the program, her family wouldn’t be able to afford insurance coverage to pay for specialists and physical therapy.
“They teach him how to be more independent and how to do better in school,” Teresa said. “And it helps me because I wouldn’t be able to give him that on my own, especially when there are five other grandchildren I am taking care of.”
Hidalgo County, where Teresa lives, has the highest concentration of colonias in Texas. The county is one of the poorest in the state and is where the Trump Administration has already begun to survey wildlife refuge land to break ground on the border wall initiative as early as next year.
The diversion of federal funds from government assistance programs to fund the border wall sends a clear message to some local advocates.
“The whole conglomeration of ‘colonia,’ and ‘unauthorized people,’ is obviously not something that is a priority,” said Ann Cass, executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit organization Proyecto Azteca.
Trump’s original fiscal budget proposal also outlined congressional cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program and the Rural Economic Development Program. Reductions to these would impact efforts to establish and expand wastewater treatment facilities and affordable housing options in Texas colonias.
In June, the Trump administration also awarded the Texas Military Department with $2.3 million for border security initiatives. Nonetheless, Texas Governor Greg Abbott kept state spending for border security at $800 million in the same month but vetoed nearly $860,000, effectively terminating the Texas Secretary of State’s Colonia Initiatives Program.
“You really have to ask — especially when it’s not a significant amount of money compared to other things — what is the purpose of [eliminating this program] then?” Cass said.
The program designates ombudspersons to border counties with the most amount of colonias, and they assess community needs while advocating for and coordinating colonia improvement projects. Perhaps most importantly, they help local nonprofits and county commissioners navigate the “often-confusing” process of applying for state and federal grants, according to the secretary of state’s office.
While Hidalgo County Ombudsperson Oliverio de la Garza could not respond to media requests, local housing advocates spoke to his impact on improving colonia conditions.
De la Garza served as a liaison between the county government, state officials and colonia residents while also facilitating the introduction of millions of project dollars to establish wastewater treatment facilities, said Amber Arriaga-Salinas, Proyecto Azteca public relations director.
“He really goes out to colonias and speaks to the people there and knows their needs,” Arriaga-Salinas said. “He recognizes all of the work we do around certain issues and housing, and we relied on him quite a bit to get information from the state.”
Without an ombudsperson, Cass said it diminishes the ability of organizations like Proyecto Azteca to do their job.
The nonprofit relies on a combination of foundation funding and state and federal grants to build and provide affordable housing to families in colonias. Less federal funding translates to building fewer houses and an increasing waitlist that already has almost 4000 families on it, Cass said.
Proyecto Azteca also collaborates with a coalition of other nonprofits to address the various economic and infrastructural factors that deteriorate the physical quality of colonia houses like Teresa’s.
Because colonias often lack drainage systems, standing water and piles of debris become a breeding ground for pests and rodents.
“The mosquitos carrying all sorts of viruses won’t just stay in the unincorporated areas if we don’t do something to take care of the stormwater and drainage,” Cass said. “This is a public health issue for everybody.”
Repeated flooding each year has completely damaged the foundation and floors of the home Teresa bought 18 years ago for $8000. She said she wouldn’t be able to afford monthly payments for a new house, even if Proyecto Azteca could offer one at a low monthly rate.
“I also wouldn’t have another place to go while they build a new house,” she said. “Besides, they wouldn’t even be able to lift up my current house for me to repair because it will fall apart, so it’ll just stay there until it does just that.”
Three of Teresa’s grandchildren, Alondra, A.J. and Jennifer, play games on their disconnected cell phones.Their favorite game to play is Minecraft, which allows players to build their own dream homes.
Still, Teresa’s home is filled with the aroma of home-cooked meals and the chatter of children playing video games indoors or chasing each other as cops and robbers outside. Teresa hopes the far-away politicians in charge keep families like hers in mind.
“Though we have great company in our communities, the reality is that the people living here can work very hard and still be very poor,” Teresa said. “We have very little. For the government to take even that away will make it impossible for things to ever get any better.”