$500 down, $375 per month.
Beyond these roadside signs, Chaparral appears as a few rows of mobile homes in a flat expanse of scrubland. But at night, when the stars come out over the desert and Chaparral is as dark as “the wolf’s mouth,” as one woman put it, it’s quickly apparent the homes extend all the way to the horizon, dotting the landscape with a faint glow every few hundred feet.
Chaparral is New Mexico’s largest colonia, one of the many unincorporated communities in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, all characterized by high rates of poverty and lack of access to basic public services. It is only 10 minutes past the farthest northeastern reaches of El Paso, but it feels a galaxy away from the city’s nearby suburbs, with their two-car driveways and faux-stucco houses.
The only major employers in Chaparral are the prison and the immigration detention center on the community’s northern outskirts. Both are owned by Otero County and run by a private company, Management and Training Corp. When Chaparral is in the news, it is usually because of the Otero County Processing Center, which holds detainees on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Over the years, everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to ICE’s own inspector general has documented a litany of problems at the facility, from the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for detainees with mental illness to substandard food and health care.
In recent months, detainees have mounted hunger strikes to protest their prolonged detention. In October, several threatened suicide, saying they couldn’t tolerate the conditions any longer. Last month, a French detainee was admitted to a hospital in Albuquerque with symptoms of emaciation and possible sepsis shortly after being transferred out of Otero. He died Dec. 29.
But here in Chaparral, the news from Otero rarely makes waves. Almost no one in the community works at the detention center — perhaps because so many of Chaparral’s residents are undocumented or have undocumented family members.
That much is obvious in the early morning hours, when lines of cars snake out of town, headed toward the factories, construction sites and fast-food restaurants of El Paso and Las Cruces. Moving in the other direction are cars from El Paso and Las Cruces, their drivers headed for shifts at Otero.
A small slice of America
When one woman moved to Chaparral in 2002, the detention center didn’t exist. The woman, who asked to be identified as Sofia, grew up in Zacatecas, in central Mexico, but moved to the U.S. when she was 18 to take care of a niece. She soon met her husband, Carlos, who also is undocumented, and together they bought a piece of land and a trailer in Chaparral. Their house was close to their extended family, and, more importantly, it represented an investment in their future in America.
At the time, Chaparral was half the size it is today, but still one of the larger of the 150 or so colonias in New Mexico. And it was growing rapidly.
Land and mobile homes here are cheap — most of them bought and sold through real estate contracts instead of mortgages, with buyers paying developers directly, often in monthly installments. It is an arrangement that typically doesn’t require proof of citizenship, a good credit history or much of a down payment.
On the flip side, it often comes with exorbitant interest rates and none of the protections of a mortgage. In such dealings, the power lies entirely with the seller, who has the right to repossess a property after a single missed payment — without refunding any of the money already paid. Practically speaking, this means the homeowner could make payments for a decade, miss a single month, and lose everything.
This is not just a hypothetical — it’s a well-documented practice in colonias across New Mexico.
For Sofia and Carlos, buying land that way was never an option.
“You can never pay it off,” Sofia said. Instead, they bought their land from a neighbor, who asked for a modest down payment and monthly installments. After a few years, they owned it outright.
But for Sofia and Carlos, America has been a very small place, one demarcated by six Border Patrol checkpoints, beginning and ending east of El Paso, south of Alamogordo and west of Las Cruces. Passing through these checkpoints as an undocumented person was a risk Sofia never intended to take.
That’s when she started hearing rumors that the checkpoints had been closed. It happened when the Border Patrol became overwhelmed by the number of Central American refugees arriving every day and decided to shift agents from the interior checkpoints to the border itself.
Photos started trickling in on Facebook, as friends and neighbors from Chaparral began tagging themselves in California and Colorado.
One woman raved about the greenery beyond the checkpoints. “I fell in love with all these states because they’re so green,” said one woman who went to California with her family during the checkpoint closure. “California is beautiful; the ocean was so beautiful.”
Back in Chaparral, she said she felt like “a bird in a cage.”
Sofia wasn’t so eager to leave. When a relative suggested she, Carlos and their three children — who are U.S. citizens — join him on a trip to Phoenix, she wavered.
But one late spring morning in 2019, Sofia and Carlos and their kids piled into the car and headed west.
As they approached the checkpoint, Carlos told everyone in the car to stop talking, paranoid that the unmanned checkpoint would somehow discern their immigration status. Soon, though, the orange cones that the Border Patrol had set up to block the checkpoint entrance faded in the rearview mirror, and Sofia picked up her phone. She called everyone she knew; it was dizzyingly exciting.
After two decades of never traveling farther than the 35 miles to Las Cruces, Sofia and her family were on the open road, bound for Phoenix.
Upon arriving, she found the city bewildering. “It’s a desert, isn’t it?” she said. “But everything was so green. There were all these orange trees, at the hotel and in front of everyone’s houses. How is it possible?”
Chaparral is a place that exists almost off the map, which is part of its appeal for many of its 15,000 — or possibly 25,000 — residents. (The official U.S. census count is notoriously low.)
Guillermina Núñez-Mchiri, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies colonias, described them as “liminal spaces” that are “out of sight and out of mind” for most Americans.
“Not much attention is brought to you, but because there isn’t a lot of attention, there’s also the flip side,” she said. “There are costs to those gray spaces.”
In Chaparral, those costs are visible wherever you look — in the lack of sidewalks and the absence of street lights. They manifest in the high rate of teen pregnancies and a median household income of $24,900.
In an unincorporated community, there is no local government — no police department, no sanitation services. The colonia lies in two counties — Doña Ana to the west, and Otero to the east.
Doña Ana recently started building a sewer system to reduce the community’s reliance on septic tanks, but it only reaches a fraction of households. In 2006, there was a vote on whether to incorporate Chaparral, which would have given residents more control over management of the town, but it failed. People were afraid of higher taxes and more government oversight.
Good deals all around
The first records of settlement in the Chaparral area date back to the turn of the 20th century, when the federal government started giving away large plots of land to homesteaders. But its present development can be largely attributed to a single family: the Colquitts.
In the 1950s, Prescott Kellum (P.K.) Colquitt purchased 1,600 acres of land from his stepfather, A.D. Greenwood, for $15,000 (the equivalent of about $150,000 in 2019). For a while, he ran cattle on the property, but then in the 1960s, around the time when many colonias started to develop, P.K. and his son, John B. Colquitt, formed a real estate company and started subdividing the land. What started as a few dozen lots with mobile homes grew rapidly into a small city, albeit one without any of the trappings of a city.
The new residents proved to be good business for the Colquitts, and not just in the realm of real estate. Today, the family runs Chaparral’s water company, Lake Section Water, and owns the local cemetery.
Now 80, John Colquitt still works out of his office in Chaparral.
Around town, he has the reputation of a beneficent patron, someone who reliably donates to the Christmas food drive and the Catholic church, even though he is not Catholic.
One person referred to him as the unofficial mayor; another called him the town’s father. As an example of his humility, several people shared a story about the time Colquitt attended a party for one of his longtime employees. “Such a good man,” one woman remarked, recalling the occasion.
Colquitt himself describes Chaparral as a community “made up of people who want a little more space,” but although he has made his living selling land to immigrants, he is also a staunch defender of the immigration detention center at Otero. He is the community liaison to the facility and has appeared in marketing materials for Management and Training Corp., the company that runs Otero, which can house up to 1,000 immigrant detainees at a time.
“It’s been financially a very good deal for Otero County,” he said, in reference to the revenue the county receives from the federal government for each detainee.
It also has been a good deal for John Colquitt, who sold the land to Otero County to build the detention center back in 2002 and continues to supply the facility with water.
Colquitt maintains Chaparral does not have and has never had a large undocumented population — a view that runs counter to widely held opinion.
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting and data journalism.