Colonias are unincorporated and unregulated settlements along the United States-Mexico border. They grew rapidly during the 1980s as thousands of legal and illegal immigrants, primarily Mexican but also Central American, settled in them because they could not pay for other housing. By 1989 an estimated 185,000 people lived in colonias in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Many Texas colonias emerged during the 1960s. As the cotton market collapsed, farmers sold their lands to real estate developers who in turn sold small plots of land for as little as a thousand dollars down and a thousand dollars a year. Many low-income families, lured by the desire to own their own homes, built houses on these plots of land, even though they lay outside city limits, were unregulated, and had minimal public services and building requirements. Builders assured many of them, however, that public utilities would follow, and consequently thousands waited for water, some as long as ten to fifteen years. Cities were reluctant to shoulder the financial burden of providing services without remuneration to thousands of people. The El Paso public water utility, for instance, citing economic and planning considerations, imposed a moratorium in 1979 that halted the supply of water to new customers outside the city. The El Paso colonias continued to grow, however, as Mexican immigrants fled their deteriorating economy. Consequently, by 1989 an estimated 28,000 colonia residents lived near El Paso without water, and an additional 53,000 lived with minimal sewage treatment.
In the late 1980s high rates of dysentery, hepatitis, and tuberculosis among colonia residents drew nationwide attention. Residents transported and stored their own water, sometimes in large barrels that formerly held toxic chemicals; water wells were often polluted by cesspools and inadequate sewage plants. In 1987, the San Elizario school system, which accommodated the largest number of colonia children in El Paso County, reported that its high absentee rates were a result of the lack of water and that children suffered from numerous health problems, including skin rashes, diarrhea and vomiting, ringworms and lice.
Since the early 1980s community groups such as Valley Interfaith and the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization have called attention to the deplorable conditions in colonias and have urged colonia residents to seek public action. In 1987, EPISO, with help from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, registered more than 20,000 new voters in the city and county, and pressured the El Paso City Council to pass a resolution urging the water utility to reverse its moratorium; new county officials were also elected who threatened to sue the city to force it to provide water to the colonias. The colonias in El Paso won a major victory in 1988, when the city's public-service board, with the help of a low-interest loan from the Texas Water Development Board, agreed to build a water plant to treat twenty million gallons a day to serve up to 78,000 people by the year 2010.
In the lower Rio Grande valley, however, where colonias are more isolated and far from any major city, action has been slower. In 1988 Texas comptroller Bob Bullock proposed a widely supported $500 million plan to help build water and sewer plants for poor communities, but the state legislature failed to act on the plan. Opponents claimed that the colonias were the federal government's responsibility since the Immigration and Naturalization Service had been unable to curb illegal immigration. In 1988, Congressman Ronald D. Coleman, a Democrat from El Paso, introduced legislation to establish a United States-Mexico Border Commission to address a wide range of border problems, but no action was taken on the bill. In 1989 state senator Tati Santiesteban of El Paso introduced legislation to establish a state bond program to fund construction for running water and sewage systems. Such measures notwithstanding, in the 1990s the problems of the colonias were far from solved.