Tribal landlord of Calif. migrants sues government over plans to close trailer park

By Gillian Flaccus
Los Angeles, California (AP)9-07

The landlord of a mobile home park that houses thousands of migrant workers in the California desert has sued the federal government, arguing that racial discrimination is behind its promise to shut the encampment down for health and safety violations.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and James Fletcher, the agency’s Southern California superintendent, have been trying to close the Desert Mobile Home Park for several months because of what they call rampant health and safety problems, including suspected clean-water violations, open sewage, overcrowding and illegal dumping.

The park, which houses as many as 4,000 workers during peak harvest season, sits on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation in the fertile Coachella Valley about 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles – and is therefore immune to state and local health and safety codes.

Fletcher and the agency are named as defendants in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Riverside by park owner and tribal member Harvey Duro.

It alleges that Fletcher and the BIA have libeled and defamed Duro by making public statements that exaggerate the problems at the park. It also alleges that Fletcher wants to close the park because of “animus and racial hatred of Native Americans and Hispanics who occupy the mobile home park.”

“Mr. Duro is challenging the U.S. government for racial bias,” said Alan Singer, Duro’s spokesman. “The government and Mr. Fletcher are discriminating against him because he’s not white.”

Fletcher was out of the office until Monday and did not immediately return a message left with his secretary. He has previously said that Duro did not take out a lease with the BIA, as required, and failed to implement health and safety improvements ordered several years ago by a federal judge as part of a consent decree.

Last month, Fletcher said the BIA would ask a federal judge as early as this month to order a phased closure of the park.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said Thursday that his agency and the BIA will file an order in federal court by the middle of this month to begin that process.

“We are preparing to move against Mr. Duro ... with an eye to, in fact, shutting the place down unless improvements are immediately made at the park,” Mrozek said.

The conflict began in the late 1990s, when local officials began cracking down on illegal trailer parks hidden on Riverside County land.

Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, opened 40 acres of his land to the migrant workers who were being displaced. With trailers in tow, the workers flocked there.

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

The latest federal inspection came in July, after a fire destroyed eight trailers. Few improvements were found, Fletcher said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has not shared the latest inspection report with Duro, Singer said, and he accused the federal agency of trying to take over Indian lands in a “new-millenium land grab.”

Duro has spent tens of thousands of dollars repairing the water system and eliminating hazardous conditions, he said.