AUSTIN, Texas - State lawmakers took up two controversial issues involving illegal immigration into Texas.
HB 4 was approved by the House State Affairs committee. The legislation would allow local law enforcement officers to charge undocumented immigrants with a misdemeanor, and even remove them from the state.
The other issue before the State Affairs members involved a large residential development called Colony Ridge. Critics claim it's a growing unregulated sanctuary city.
"Why all of a sudden, What, you make somebody mad or what? What the hell happened? I mean, why are we even here doing this," asked State Rep. Jay Dean (R) Longview.
That question never really got answered during a Hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. The topic was a subdivision north of Houston called Colony Ridge. It's a large development geared toward low income, first time home buyers, according to company CEO John Harris.
"The most important thing we did for our customers is to provide financing that they couldn't get anywhere else. And that allowed them. To move onto the property quicker, and it allowed us to grow," said Harris.
During the hearing, Harris tried to address why his property in Liberty County is also described as an unregulated sanctuary city.
"I didn't think anyone was going to take that seriously because we didn't take it seriously," Harris told the committee.
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Gov. Abbott took the accusations serious and made Colony Ridge part of his Special Session Call.
Harris didn’t criticize the Governor for making it a topic for lawmakers, and he hopes the concerns about his development will eventually fade away. He could only speculate about why several conservative groups and media outlets have pushed so hard to have Colony Ridge an emergency issue under the capitol dome.
"Yeah, we were puzzled by it," said Harris.
Attorney General Ken Paxton has provided an assessment of Colony Ridge. He wrote a review as part of a letter, sent to members of the Texas Congressional Delegation, a few hours before the House State Affairs Hearing.
Paxton concluded the "development appears to be attracting and enabling illegal alien settlement in the state of Texas." Harris, after testifying, said he had not seen the Paxton letter. He was asked by a reporter if his company was directly targeting undocumented migrants to provide permanent housing.
"No, that's not correct. We do a lot of advertising in Spanish. Most of it's on social media. But we don't target. We don't advertise overseas. Right. We don't buy ads in any other country," said Harris.
It's estimated the site currently has a population of 30,000 to 40,000 people. Some accounts are even larger. Committee members were told that the development has had issues with the state environmental agency, TCEQ, involving wastewater and stormwater runoff. But those problems have been, or are being, addressed.
The committee was also told some residents do have ties to the Mexican cartel and gangs. The sheriff of Liberty County, Bobby Rader, testified at the hearing and disputed claims that the area was controlled by criminals.
"There's not any no-go zone anywhere in that place. We can drive anywhere day or night, and we're not in fear," said Sheriff Rader.
The sheriff did say his office is understaffed which is why, after the development made national headlines, state troopers were deployed to help patrol Colony Ridge.
DPS director Steve McCraw testified the action was similar to the kind of help provided to Austin and Houston. McCraw did say an extra safety initiative was launched in Liberty County.
"We sent it special agents to do investigations and specifically covert operations like we do in other areas to detect organized crime activity. We saw, you know, the numbers were pretty paltry in terms of the impact that we had because we didn't detect much criminal activity. There was some," said McCraw.
Committee member Chris Turner (D) Grand Prairie asked McCraw about Paxton’s Letter and the claim that the scale of the Colony Ridge development has proved unmanageable for effective law enforcement.
"I think we have it certainly managed right now. I think the sure, I'll defer to him. But there's no question that that compared to what we're dealing other parts of the state, it's certainly manageable," said McCraw.
McCraw also testified the Attorney General's Office did not consult with DPS as part of the review Paxton released Thursday. The Committee did not take any special action regarding Colony Ridge.