Though illegal immigration has come to a virtual standstill in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, decades of dysfunction in America’s immigration system continue to have deleterious effects in communities throughout the nation. As is often the case, developments in Texas, which shares almost two-thirds of the U.S. border with Mexico, provide some of the starkest examples of the ongoing challenge.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Liberty County, Texas, some 40 miles northeast of Houston, is now home to the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the United States, along with one of the fastest-growing school districts in the entire country. At the epicenter of this growth are the communities of “Houston El Norte,” a massive development underway in a 25 square-mile (over 16,000 acres) section of the county. With a current population of around 20,000, when fully built out – the population of the communities is projected to reach as high as a quarter million people.
According to estimates by county and school district officials, approximately 10-20% of the current population of Houston El Norte are persons who are not legally authorized to be in the United States. Detractors say local officials and the developer are lowballing those estimates, and the figure could easily be double that. No one knows the exact number, but even if the most conservative estimates are correct, that means the number of Houston El Norte residents who are unlawfully present in the country is in the thousands and is headed toward the tens of thousands.
The fact that a significant portion of the newcomers to Liberty County do not have legal status needs to be addressed in order to ensure an emerging population center of this magnitude will not become a magnet or sanctuary for unlawful immigration. By definition, illegal immigration adds an unwelcome, damaging layer of lawlessness to what is otherwise promising development and growth in the county.
According to the man most responsible for spurring this development, Colony Ridge Land, LLC President John “Trey” Harris, there are relatively few troublemakers among the people buying and building homes on thousands of lots in Houston El Norte. “The families here are more concerned about getting the bad guys out that anyone else is,” says Harris, who assures he is all for improving law enforcement and border security, and is working with the Liberty County Sheriff’s office to facilitate more police presence in the area.
Many taxpayers in the Cleveland, Texas Independent School District, which serves the communities of Houston El Norte, also resent the burden of having to finance new infrastructure to accommodate the onslaught of new students. The district has more than doubled its student population since 2014, from a little over 3,800 to over 7,800 at present and is expected to reach over 13,500 within the next four years. The district’s taxpayers are currently on the hook for more than $300 million in bond debt to finance the construction of three new elementary schools, a new middle school and expansion of the district’s high school, among other needs.
Cleveland ISD Superintendent Chris Trotter, Liberty County Judge Jay Knight and other local public officials naturally seek to put the best face on the situation, as they work to meet the challenge of the massive new development in the county. They point out that the newcomers, too, are on the hook for rising property tax assessments, and Cleveland ISD, along with other formerly rural, relatively low-income fast growth school districts in the state, is especially benefitting from the Texas Plan for Transformational School Finance Reform that was enacted last June.
However, ensuring that the development of a population center of this magnitude that is marred by illegal immigration does not get out of control will require even closer than normal cooperation among public officials, developers and especially law enforcement.
For Liberty County, that likely means it is time to sign up for one of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency’s collaborative programs, such as 287(g) or the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program. Both initiatives, the latter launched just last year by the Trump administration especially for more rural jurisdictions like Liberty County, enable common-sense cooperation between local and federal authorities in immigration law enforcement. Participating 287(g) and WSO officers, for example, serve administrative warrants and execute arrests on behalf of ICE within the confines of the jails where they work.
Along with strict enforcement of the covenants of Houston El Norte’s property owners association to weed out substandard housing as well as enforcement by state and county officials of applicable business licensing requirements, a promising future for these growing communities, and Liberty County as a whole, is certainly possible. It is also hoped that as the newcomers become newly minted property taxpayers, they will also be inclined to join the ranks of their fellow Texas taxpayers who favor lower tax burdens across the whole of government.