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Colony Ridge Reflects Texas Conservative Values. It Gets Bashed Anyway.

LIBERTY COUNTY, Tex. — Principal Sheri Hawthorn drives about an hour north of her Houston suburb every morning to the booming community of Colony Ridge, a development that seems a showcase of Texas conservative values given its limited government, unfettered growth and enthusiastic support for charter schools like Hawthorn’s.

In recent weeks, though, Colony Ridge has found itself under fire from conservative lawmakers. They’ve blasted it as a haven for illegal immigrants and cartels, threatened a state takeover and listed it as a priority during this month’s special legislative session along with border security and school vouchers.

One Republican critic even condemnedthe development as “an existential danger to life and liberty for many Texans.”

Such characterizations are at odds with what Hawthorn sees. As she sat in her office last week at the International Leadership of Texas BG Ramirez school, which offers a trilingual curriculum in English, Spanish and Mandarin, she described a community full of strivers building homes and trying to send sons and daughters to college.

“What you see here are poor families that are looking for better for their kids,” she said.

Hers is one of the two elementary-middle charter schools built in as many years at Colony Ridge and now serving more than 2,300 children. She walked the hallways, explaining that bulletin boards honoring Bolivia and Peru were part of the school’s celebration of National Hispanic Heritage month. Many students’ parents are originally from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, she noted.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity,” said Hawthorn, who wishes that critics would “look at the big picture.” Colony Ridge contends with crime and undocumented immigrants, she acknowledged, but no more than in other Texas communities and certainly not the threat portrayed by some top Republican politicians.

“If I was afraid, I wouldn’t drive 50 miles to work here every day,” she said.

The sprawling development, population 40,000 and still growing, is a mix of homes in various states of completion. Brick ranch houses line some streets. Mobile homes anchor others. The local grocery store, El Faro Supermercado, keeps company with a gas station and taquerias. Signs inEnglish and Spanish advertise stores that are set to open soon and sell boba tea and doughnuts. There are no sidewalks or streetlights, as is true of many other unincorporated exurban areas of Texas.

Terrenos Houston, the sales company behind Colony Ridge, has capitalized on hallmarks of the oft-cited Texas Miracle: cheap land, direct financing and few building regulations. Recent immigrants — including those without Social Security numbers, many of whom work in construction and related industries — could buy property, live in an RV and build their homes bit by bit without incurring major debt.

But as the development expanded over the past decade, local public schools grew crowded and residents in the nearby towns of Plum Grove and Cleveland complained. After a mass shooting last year in neighboring San Jacinto County, by a gunman who was in the country illegally despite being repeatedly deported, the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies highlighted Colony Ridge as “a warning to America about the coming consequences of an unfettered mass migration.”

The soaring number of migrants at the U.S. southern border this summer prompted Texas Republican leaders to really weigh in.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick insisted there wasn’t enough local law enforcement to secure Colony Ridge residents after he took a helicopter tour with state public safety officials last month. “With the Biden administration allowing millions of people to cross the Texas border, many ask if this community is going to become its own enclave,” Patrick posted online with photos from his tour.

Last week, Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to the Texas congressional delegation saying the developers were “enabling illegal alien settlement in the state of Texas” as well as drug trafficking and other violent crime.

“This form of real estate development and financing has created an attractive opportunity for noncitizens to cross the border and settle in Texas, with fast-growing developments the size of entire cities forcing nearby areas to struggle to adapt to — and even subsidize — the influx of new residents enriching the developers,” Paxton wrote.

A customer leaves the El Faro Supermercado, which opened earlier this year in Colony Ridge. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Gov. Greg Abbott has called the community a “colonia” and “no-go zone” for law enforcement. He deployed extra state troopers to the area and put Colony Ridge on the special session agenda after four legislators demanded the state assume control under a conservatorship and add a trooper substation.

“We’re not attacking Latinos. We’re not attacking Spanish-speaking people. We’re attacking people who are taking advantage of them,” said Rep. Steve Toth, who represents a neighboring district. He took his own helicopter tour and then described what he saw as “a cesspool” for which unscrupulous developers were to blame.

In recent days, even as the Texas House moved forward on a trio of contentious bills to fortify the border, some of the Republican rhetoric over Colony Ridge cooled. Lt. Craig Cummings of the Texas Department of Public Safety toured the community last week and pushed back against allegations of widespread activity tied to Mexican drug cartels and surges in crime.

“The idea that everyone there is illegal and connected to the cartels is totally false,” Cummings said. The additional officers deployed at Abbott’s request are assisting local law enforcement with criminal investigations, but there have been “no major busts.” And instead of rampant crime, the troopers found appreciative residents who were “waving to us and thanking us.”

Victoria Good, who runs the local chamber of commerce, sends her 5- and 8-year-old sons to the other charter school in Colony Ridge. While some in the county have legitimate concerns about coping with rapid growth and crowded classrooms, Good believes there’s also “a racial piece.”

“If more people would get to know people in this area, some of those misconceptions would disappear,” she said.

Two brothers who grew up in the area get either the credit or the blame, depending on one’s perspective, for Colony Ridge. Both have vigorously defended the development, with William “Trey” Harris talking about being blindsided by the slew of recent attacks. Harris, who has contributed more than $1 million to Abbott’s campaigns, considers many critics’ comments to be racist. Plus, he said, they’re offending the very people the GOP should be trying to attract as voters.

Colony Ridge developer William “Trey” Harris has pushed back against Republican allegations about the community, saying he finds many offensive and even racist. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The people living in Colony Ridge are family oriented, he told The Washington Post, sitting in an office festooned with international flags, pictures of residents and maps of the burgeoning community. “They don’t want higher taxes, they want to do their own thing, they don’t want to be regulated. They’re Republicans — they just don’t know it,” he said.

At one point Harris was so certain Colony Ridge residents would vote Republican, he moved a polling place to the community center and added voter registration to community events. Critics “don’t understand what all goes on in my neighborhood and what I’m working for,” he said in the interview. “The Latino population is the future of Texas.”

In October, Harris hosted state lawmakers for a bus tour of Colony Ridge that he thought dispelled some misconceptions. He followed that with a trip to Austin last week to testify at a House committee hearing on his development. Numerous state and local officials joined him, refuting claims that the community had become too dangerous to govern.

“There’s no such thing as a no-go zone in Texas,” testified Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.

The committee didn’t advance any legislation concerning Colony Ridge. So far, the legislature hasn’t either. The biggest impact of the Colony Ridge brouhaha may be Republicans alienating Latino residents and their allies.

“I used to be a Republican. But the Republicans have been beating up on me so bad, I don’t know what I am,” Harris said.

Liberty County Constable Zack Harkness hands out patches during the National Night Out event in Colony Ridge this month. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Cynthia Silva moved to Colony Ridge two years ago and started a GOP club that canvassed ahead of elections. Then strangers showed up outside her house recently, photographing her “Familia Silva” sign with its Puerto Rican and Mexican flags in honor her heritage and her husband’s.

“Putting a helicopter over people’s homes and posting pictures? It’s gone too far,” said Silva, who runs a local Spanish language news site, El Amanecer Texas.

She tried to reason with the White attendees at a recent tea party meeting in a nearby town. But she grew frustrated by their complaints about Colony Ridge and people speaking Spanish and children who “should go back where they came from.”

Silva voted for Trump twice, home-schools her three children, opposes vaccine mandates and abortion. She considers herself a Hispanic conservative. But in Texas, she’s no longer sure that makes her Republican. She now identifies as Independent.

“I told my husband I’m not voting red anymore,” she said. “I’m not a Black Lives Matter person. And I don’t believe in structural racism. But do I believe there’s racism in towns like this? Yes.”

Source : TheWashingtonPost