CLEVELAND, Texas (AP) — Mario Carranza put a mobile home on a $28,000 lot in Colony Ridge, one of the biggest neighborhoods in Texas, lured by cheap land and the chance for his family to escape the crime he says was rampant around their apartment in nearby Houston.
“Here, we are good,” said Carranza, 65, who now drives about an hour to his maintenance job in a Houston suburb.
But his quiet neighborhood is now in an unwelcome national spotlight. For weeks in Texas, conservative media and GOP activists have been pushing unsubstantiated claims that Colony Ridge has become a magnet for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and that cartels control pockets of the neighborhood.
There is no evidence to support the claims, and residents, local officials and the developer dispute the portrayals. The unsubstantiated reports have spread quickly and gained traction among Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president.
The attention has abruptly plunged Liberty County — a Republican stronghold that former President Donald Trump won by nearly 80% in 2020 — into the center of immigration politics hundreds of miles from the U.S-Mexico border. Republicans see immigration as a central issue in next year’s elections and the unsubstantiated reports are coming at a time when large groups of migrants from Central and South American have been crossing into Texas.
The developer of Colony Ridge is Trey Harris, who has donated more than $1 million to Abbott’s campaigns. Driving around the neighborhood in a white Ford pickup on Tuesday, Harris bemoaned the claims and has invited lawmakers to see for themselves this week.
“I’m surprised and a little disappointed that (Abbott) didn’t reach out and make an attempt to learn more about the facts before he got on national television and started talking,” Harris said.
Abbott, whose office did not return messages seeking comment, asked lawmakers Thursday to address “areas like the Colony Ridge development” in a special legislative session starting next week but offered no specific proposals.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, DeSantis last month wrote: “I will end this.”
Laws do not prohibit non-U.S. citizens from purchasing homes. Although many in Liberty County acknowledge that undocumented citizens live in Colony Ridge, they pushed back on claims that they account for most residents and described their community as no different than many neighborhoods across Texas.
“It does bother me that people accuse my customers of being drug dealers and cartel and organized crime. Come on man,” Harris said. “These are families that want a better place to raise their kids. They want better schools for their kids. They want better opportunities for their children”
The development first broke ground 20 years ago, leaving some in Liberty County puzzled by the timing of the recent scrutiny. The area neighbors San Jacinto County, where in April a Mexican national allegedly killed five of his Honduran neighbors. Harris said he believes some of the criticism is related to “racial issues” he says Colony Ridge has previously confronted from a town adjacent to the rapidly growing development, which he estimates has about 40,000 residents.
Zayda Cerrato, 43, moved to Colony Ridge from California about six years ago at the urging of an uncle who lived there. She said she was drawn there in part because of the greenery and vegetation that surrounds the development, which has been carved out from the piney woods that blanket East Texas.
Some residents like Cerrato, who is from Honduras, have set up mobile homes on their land. Others have built permanent homes with manicured lawns that wouldn’t look out of place in a typical suburban subdivision. Harris said the community is still growing and has several new schools. New retail centers that will include such businesses as Pizza Hut and Subway also dot the development.
“My life here is very peaceful. I don’t mess with anybody,” said Cerrato, leaving a supermarket. “From my job to my house, from my house to my job. I visit stores only when I need to. I would describe it as very peaceful.”
The explosive growth of the area has not come without challenges. The school district based in nearby Cleveland is teaching nearly three times as many students as a decade ago and has struggled to create enough space. The local sheriff’s office says it needs more officers to patrol the region but described the crime rates as not any worse than other parts of Texas.
“It’s the normal calls. It’s just the volume is higher,” said Billy Knox, chief deputy of the the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office.
For Carranza, who is from Mexico and became a naturalized citizen a decade ago, the growing traffic has caused some of the streets to fall into disrepair.
If Abbott is going to address anything about Colony Ridge, it should be that, he said.
“Tell the governor to come here so he can fix the streets,” Carranza said.
___ Weber reported from Austin, Texas.