November 21, 2001

City of Carlsbad Evicts Migrant Workers In Time for the Holidays

By Yvette tenBerge

This Thanksgiving holiday, many San Diegans will join America in celebrating their blessings. Clasping hands around the table, families will bow their heads in prayer before piling their plates high with thick slices of turkey, huge helpings of mashed potatoes and heaping spoonfuls of fresh fruits and vegetables.

What most of America will not do, though, is stop to give thanks to the migrant agricultural workers from Mexico and Central America whose labor provides us with the flowers that decorate our tables and the tomatoes, avocados, oranges and strawberries that fill our refrigerators.

A Carlsbad farmworker stands in a shack that he built. His home is similar to the ones torn down by the city on November 3rd and 4th.

While we sit safe and warm in our homes, these boys and men, some as young as 11 and others as old as 60, will finish a long day of work before hiking through the rattle snake and mosquito infested canyons of North County where their makeshift "homes" are constructed out of materials like cardboard, plastic trash bags and plywood. Or at least where their homes used to be, until, the City of Carlsbad "evicted" as many as 140 men from their shacks.

On the weekend of November 3, the City of Carlsbad ordered Carlsbad Security Service, a firm with whom the city has contracted for the past four years, to remove a migrant camp near the city's Agua Hedionda Lagoon. This camp has occupied a strip of city-owned land for about the past three years. The land is currently being leased by Leslie Farms, the strawberry grower who farms the fields north of Cannon Road off of I-5 and who actually employs many of the men who were evicted.

According to Fred Burnell, the City's Public Works Supervisor, a community service officer patrolling the lagoon by boat spotted the camp and notified the city. "The whole area is covered in a canopy of castor bean plants, so you can see much more of the area from the lagoon. This isn't the first time we have taken a camp down like this," says Mr. Burnell, who called a meeting in which he ordered the Carlsbad Security Service to post notices in both English and Spanish before tearing down the camp. "This camp was a health hazard."

Outraged North County residents staged a protest in front of Leslie Farms on Friday, November 9.

Joe Canales is the owner of Carlsbad Security Service. He confirms that he posted the notices at least a week before tearing down the shacks, and says that he notified the manager of Leslie Farms, as well. "The camps were in really bad condition. There was trash all over, lots of rats and when these men go to the bathroom, some of it goes into the lagoon," says Mr. Canales, who gives another possible reason for the city's removal of the men from the property. "Not only was this a health issue, it was a liability issue."

The city maintains that they were just doing their job in evicting these men, and they are quick to point to what they have done to provide migrant workers with shelter, mainly establishing one 50-bed shelter located about half an hour by bus from Leslie Farms. As far as the city is concerned, they do not have the legal right to mandate that growers supply housing for their workers, and the city does not have an obligation to provide housing for these men, either.

Ilene Jacobs is the Director of Litigation, Advocacy and Training for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. She has practiced housing, fair housing and civil rights law for more than 20 years. Ms. Jacobs does not let the city off the hook. "The growers and the city are both to blame. The employer profits from cheap labor and the ability to exploit vulnerable workers, yet refuses to adequately house workers who need housing as part of their employment," says Ms. Jacobs. "The consumers benefit from cheap food, and the city has the obligation to plan to address their housing needs and to take specific actions to do so."

A typical kitchen area.

Although Ms. Jacobs has not had an opportunity to investigate this specific incident, she has already received calls about it and has read media coverage. She believes that according to the state Employee Housing Act, the city and the grower might well have an obligation to ensure that these men have adequate, alternative housing. She outlines what should have occurred once the city was notified that the workers were living on their land.

"Ironically, in this case, the city would have to notify the owner, which happens to be the city. They also have to notify the operator of the housing, and it appears that the rancher (Leslie Farms) is operating the housing. They both should be notified that they have the obligation to obtain permits and maintain decent, safe and sanitary housing. A property owner has a legal responsibility to inspect his or her property and to know that the person leasing the property is conducting himself legally," says Ms. Jacobs. " The City of Carlsbad should be taking appropriate action, not pretending [the migrant camp] isn't there and throwing people out when it is supposedly discovered."

As for Leslie Farms' side of the story, La Prensa San Diego placed a number of calls over the course of a week to its manger, Peter Markoff. He did not return calls for comment.

A farmworker home in Carlsbad.

Barbara Perrigo has been an advocate for immigrant rights for almost 10 years, and she is a member of North County's Ecumenical Migrant Outreach Project, a group that works to protect and to promote the rights of migrant and farm workers. Each week, she delivers hot meals and blankets to these men, and she monitors their working and living conditions. "I don't understand the city's actions. All they had to do was help clean up the camps and put in a bathroom; they didn't have to throw these men out," says Ms. Perrigo.

Ms. Perrigo compares the way in which the City of Carlsbad destroyed the migrant camp to the way in which the San Diego Police Department in Carmel Valley might have handled the situation. "The San Diego Police Department in Carmel Valley has police officers who know almost every man in that canyon. Their officers have really earned the trust of these men by working with them. The City of Carlsbad has a different attitude: `We know that they are there, but we are ignoring them. We'll only go down there when we know it's appropriate to get rid of them, rather than being pro-active about the problem,'" says Ms. Perrigo. "That attitude is silly. These men have been living there for years."

Carlos Maldonado has been a Community Worker for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. since 1990. He is very familiar with Leslie Farms and the men who live on and around the property. "We have been at Leslie Farms, and we have seen a lot of people living around their property during the strawberry season. After the season, these men move east of the farm to pick tomatoes at a nearby farm. I have never heard that it was a problem to have those men staying there (around the Agua Hedionda Lagoon)," says Mr. Maldonado. "Nobody ever complains; this was a surprise."

Mr. Maldonado quickly dispels the myth that the majority of these workers are living and working in the United States illegally. "Most of these people are legal, permanent residences of the U.S. A lot of people have been living in the area and working for Leslie Farms for more than 10 years," says Mr. Maldonado, who estimates that as many as 65 percent of the migrant laborers are living and working at these farms legally. "These men were there with the knowledge of the owners of the farms; the employer was well aware of the people living around their fields."

As for the 50-bed shelter that the City of Carlsbad touts, it does little to help a migrant farm worker population that is estimated to be as high as 15,000 in North County, alone. Figures from Carlsbad's Housing and Redevelopment Department show that 1040 low-income housing units currently exist in the city, 260 more are being built and 1,000 more will be built within the next three years. The waiting list for these rental units is two years long, and the prices range between $300 and $1,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.

Three years, though, is a long time to wait when your house was destroyed two and a half weeks ago, and $1,000 is a lot to pay when you make less than that each month. For these workers, then, thanks may be something difficult to give this Thursday when those who benefit from their labor are unwilling to help them live to provide it, and when the fruits of their labor are sitting on someone else's plate.

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