Strange Bedfellows: Texas Joins Biden Admin. in Suing Massive Illegal-Immigrant Development

By Todd Bensman on March 18, 2024
 Colony Ridge

AUSTIN, Texas — The State of Texas has now joined federal agencies in alleging a vast land sales fraud and foreclosure abuse scheme by the developers of perhaps the largest illegal immigrant colonia in the United States, a 60-square-mile city of at least 50,000 (and up to 75,000) northeast of Houston named Colony Ridge.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office alleges that Colony Ridge Development owners John and Trey Harris — once large Republican campaign donors to Gov. Greg Abbott — ran aggressive “predatory” land sales and “foreclosure mill” schemes that systematically defrauded tens of thousands “Spanish speakers” from “international communities” for more than a decade.

Many of the state’s allegations mirror federal ones that Biden administration-led agencies filed on December 20, 2023, in an 11-count civil rights complaint. The federal civil charges seeking payback damages allege that since at least 2016, the Harris brothers ran a large-scale “illegal land sales scheme” predicated on “predatory” and false advertising that tricked tens of thousands of Latinos into buying do-it-yourself, flooding-prone home building lots despite extremely high interest, foreclosure, and property-flipping rates.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants bought land in Colony Ridge from the Harris family. But local residents, law enforcement officials, business owners, and elected office holders almost uniformly believe the majority who bought into the massive colonia bought do-it-yourself home plots at high interest rates because they were not legally present in the United States; the company required no proof of income or credit.

While none of the lawsuits spell out that marketing and sales targeted illegal immigrants, the state filing and press release about marketing and selling to “international communities” suggest that former Colony Ridge employees are poised to later say so.

“Among other things, former employees of Colony Ridge have represented that the company instructed them to avoid selling to customers who could speak English or who did not appear to be of Latino or Hispanic heritage,” it said.

The brothers have colorfully denied all of the federal allegations, telling a local news outlet that the lawsuit was “total bullshit”, its allegations completely false.

“I don’t understand why we are being made into the bad guys,” Trey Harris said. “There are thousands of people who were living in apartments and rent houses who now have their own houses and are earning equity. If they are paying slightly higher interest rates, it is still better than paying rent and not earning equity.”

The brothers, though clearly eager to defeat the civil lawsuits and the massive business-killing penalties they portend, may soon have to expand their defense to new battlefields.

The New York Post has reported that the IRS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have opened investigations on Colony Ridge’s developers and operations, and The Daily Wire has reported that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 office has an active investigation, too.

A Raging Border Crisis Makes for Strange Bedfellows

Last fall, Gov. Abbott officially broke with his Colony Ridge donors. He ordered up two special legislative sessions about Colony Ridge problems and then ordered a sustained Texas state trooper surge after the hearings, earmarking $40 million for it.

That the governor took those actions, and now Paxton (said to be no friend of the governor) has mounted an investigation and lawsuit targeting Republican donors, put Texas in uncomfortably mismatched partnership with President Joe Biden’s agencies.

What all this demonstrates, more than anything else, is that political heat generated by Biden’s mass illegal immigration crisis has finally caught up to Texas Republican leaders and to the development, which had grown exponentially for years without much attention before the border crisis.

Whereas Colony Ridge’s growth has ballooned every year since its founding in the early 2010s, with little notice beyond local East Texas counties, sharply rising border crisis heat finally began to singe Colony Ridge in 2023.

In public hearings that Gov. Abbott called in the fall of 2023, testimony traced broader critical awareness of the community’s size and impacts on surrounding communities to the February 2023 publication of my book, Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History, which dedicates its final chapter to Colony Ridge’s school district.

Testimony and subsequent media coverage of Abbott’s hearings also blamed columns I wrote, especially one about how an illegally present Mexican national allegedly used a semi-automatic rifle to slaughter a family of five Hondurans in San Jacinto County, in a neighborhood of other illegal immigrants that grew immediately adjacent to Colony Ridge.

Terrible Crimes Unfamiliar to the Region

The Texas and federal lawsuits and hearings seem designed to end the still wildly expanding growth of Colony Ridge, while the Texas law enforcement deployment tamps down crime that the developers and media backers worked hard to deflect.

The Harris brothers mounted a public relations offensive that gained some traction among reporters who accepted its unlikely base premise: That Colony Ridge could not be blamed for the Hondurans’ massacre and other terrible crimes previously unfamiliar to the counties because a few technically occurred outside the Colony Ridge boundaries in neighboring counties and communities.

But Paxton’s office notes that Colony Ridge’s impacts were not limited to its own homeowner’s association boundaries.

“Their deceptive practices have created unjust and outsized harms,” the Paxton press statement continued. “Nearby communities have borne a tremendous cost for the scheme that made Colony Ridge’s developers a fortune.”

In that vein, columns I penned before all of this pointed out other horrific violent crimes — and Mexican cartel activity — that were unfamiliar to the isolated counties before Colony Ridge blossomed.

In 2020, for instance, an illegal alien from Mexico who settled in Colony Ridge chained two house cleaners to a bed and sexually assaulted them in a blackmail scheme during which he took nude photos. The nightmare ended when one of the women attempted an escape in her vehicle but didn’t make it; her assailant managed to shoot her to death and set her car on fire with her inside before fleeing back to Mexico. Border Patrol caught him trying to cross again in California a short time later.

In June 2022, a Liberty County dog brought home a human hand, which led to the discovery of a badly decomposed body of a man who had been buried with his gun. Police couldn’t identify the corpse and were left to post photos of the clothing in hopes someone would recognize them.

In September 2022, passersby in Colony Ridge found the body of a 16-year-old Honduran girl who’d been shot to death and dumped in a ditch by the side of a road, still wearing her uniform from her work bussing tables at a local restaurant. Gang unit police arrested three foreign nationals, all under 21, and charged them with the murder of Emily Rodriguez-Avila, citing “gang overtones” as a motive. The family shipped her body back to Honduras for burial.

Some crime has proven especially twisted relative to the area’s past.

In 2016, owners of a Colony Ridge lot who were clearing it of brush discovered the decomposing remains of a single mother of five children named Esmeralda Pargas-Nunez, 42, who’d been reported missing a month earlier. It took two years, but homicide detectives tracked down her alleged killer to Houston in 2018, another woman named Sabrina Olarosa Garcia, and charged her with murder. This was evidently part of a kidnapping scheme in Houston where the alleged murderer first lured her victim to a meeting.

Evidence of cartel involvement dates to the earliest days of the illegal-alien settlement boom – to at least 2013, when federal, state, and local investigators raided a Mexican drug cartel’s marijuana grow operation on 300 acres in Liberty County, finding explosives, 6,000 marijuana plants, worker bunk houses, and guard towers. Local police at the time called it the “largest and most sophisticated marijuana-growing operation” in the county’s history.

In July 2021, the DEA broke that dubious record with the new biggest drug bust in Liberty County history with a raid that broke up a multimillion-dollar methamphetamine manufacturing lab.

During a reporting trip to Colony Ridge, a police investigator drove me around several town neighborhoods pointing out high-end brick homes where cartel management figures lived before they were busted or moved away.

The state lawsuit seeks civil penalties that appear to be aimed at ending Colony Ridge’s growth. It wants $1 million for each day the alleged violations continue, and penalties ranging from $10,000 per violation to as high as $250,000.

The Biden and Texas agencies may have nothing else in common when it comes to illegal immigration and the national border crisis. But they do appear to have one thing in common: ending the growth of Colony Ridge, the business model that so enriched the Harris brothers, and the incredibly violent criminal acts that have gone on in and all around the illegal immigrant colonia.