Feds take first step to shut down migrant housing on Indian land

By Gillian Flaccus
Santa Ana, California (AP) 9-07

Federal authorities have taken the first step to shut down a mobile home park that shelters thousands of migrant workers after an inspection there found rampant health and safety violations.

In court papers filed late September, the U.S. attorney’s office said it will ask a federal judge at an Oct. 15 hearing to close the park within 60 days unless improvements are made. The government will also ask U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner to immediately shutter all commercial businesses on the property and order the park’s owner, Harvey Duro, to pay for restoring the site if it is closed.

Independent inspectors found sewage wastewater several inches deep, dead rodents, swarms of flies and animal feces at the Desert Mobile Home Park during a July spot check. They also found inadequate drinking water, a jerry-rigged electrical system, severe overcrowding and fire hazards, according to court papers.

The park is located on the Torres Martinez Reservation in the fertile Coachella Valley, about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles. About 4,000 migrant workers live there, but because the park is on tribal land, it is immune to local and state health and safety codes.

Alan Singer, spokesman for park owner Harvey Duro, said he hadn’t seen a copy of the filing and couldn’t comment on its specifics.

He said, however, that closing the park would be harmful to the community, which already struggles to find affordable housing for the thousands of migrant workers who flock to the area to harvest table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops.

“If the BIA were successful in having the park shut down, I don’t think Riverside County or any state or federal agency would have any way to deal with the relocation of thousands of people,” Singer said. “They’re just unable to do it.”

The conflict between the owner and the federal government began in the late 1990s, when local officials began cracking down on illegal trailer parks hidden away on county land.

Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla, opened 40 acres of his land on the reservation to the migrant workers who were being displaced. With trailers in tow, the workers flocked to the new mobile home park.

Conditions worsened until 2004. Federal officials ordered numerous repairs after the facility was cited by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for alleged clean-water violations, open sewage, illegal dumping and overcrowding.

Since then, the BIA has met repeatedly with Duro to press for the improvements that were outlined in that agreement, but Duro hasn’t cooperated, according to court papers.

In July, after a fire destroyed six trailers and displaced 120 residents, the BIA paid for the two-day independent inspection that launched the government’s drive to shut the park down.

Two weeks ago, Duro filed a federal lawsuit against the BIA and James Fletcher, the agency’s Southern California superintendent, alleging that racial discrimination was behind the plan to shut down Desert Mobile Home Park.

Singer said Duro has spent tens of thousands of dollars on improvements despite the governments allegations. He also said the fire at the park was arson and not caused by hazardous conditions.