Judge places SoCal migrant camp under temporary receiver

By Gillian Flaccus
Riverside, California (AP) 2-08

Citing rampant health and safety violations, a federal judge appointed two special masters and a temporary receiver to help manage a Coachella Valley trailer park on Indian land that is home to up to 6,000 migrant workers.

Local officials and the farmworkers who live in the encampment had worried that U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson would order the park closed, flooding the region with homeless families in a county that has a shortage of thousands of units of affordable housing.

Instead, Larson appointed as special masters Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former ambassador-at-large for the Office of War Crimes Issues under the current Bush administration, and Jack Shine, president and chief executive of First Financial Group.

Attorney Mark S. Adams was named temporary receiver, with the power to order emergency repairs at the park using a $150,000 fund and control the financial books. The park owners will still manage day-to-day operations, including collecting rent from residents, pay expenses and pay salaries, Larson said.

The three overseers will have 60 days to study solutions at the park and prepare a recommendation to the court. They will have unlimited access to the park property during that time – but Larson also warned that the park could shut down if no progress is made.

“We have a dangerous situation in hand and there’s really no one that the court has confidence in at this point to monitor that situation,” said Larson, who toured the park in December. “The court wants to make sure that there is somebody in place to oversee what is out there.”

The U.S. attorney’s office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have been trying to shut down the Desert Mobile Home Park for several years. The government most recently asked Larson to shut it down after the Bureau of Indian Affairs identified inadequate drinking water, a jerry-rigged electrical system, severe overcrowding and fire hazards.

The camp is located on Torres Martinez Indian land in the fertile Coachella Valley, about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and is exempt from state and local safety codes because of its sovereign status. It is owned by Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians member Harvey Duro Sr.

Outside court, Duro said he found the judge’s order “adequate” but said residents have shorted him on $250,000 in rent because they believe the park will eventually close.

“I can’t say what’s going to happen. I have no control over that. I’m at the mercy of the court,” he said.

Surrounding Riverside County currently has a 40,000-person waiting list for subsidized or low-income housing, with no new units expected before 2010. The only other affordable apartments are at least 90 minutes away and some are as far as the Mexican border, according to papers filed last month.

Cheap housing is key for the thousands of migrant workers who live in the Desert Mobile Home Park during peak harvest season and for the region’s economy. The migrants, who make as little as $15,000 annually, pick some of the nearly $1 billion worth of table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops that the region yields each year.

Larson praised Duro’s attempts to provide housing for the migrants, but expressed concern about the conditions. He also said he didn’t see any feasible solutions presented by the government – which opposed a receivership – or the defense.

“I’m left with the words from government counsel at this last hearing that, simply, it’s not their problem,” the judge said.

“This is not like shutting the toxic waste dump next to the park. ... You can’t red tape a town. There’s just too many people involved in this.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leon W. Weidman said he was concerned about the judge’s plan to give the temporary receiver $150,000 to spend on emergency improvements.

“The potential liability, as the court is aware, of taking control of that mobile home park is enormous,” he said.

“Are they going to be authorized to spend money to bring all these mobile homes up to code? Are they going to be authorized to bring up the sewer system, the electrical system, all these systems? If that’s what emergency means, $150,000 wouldn’t start, $1 million wouldn’t be the beginning, $10 million might not be sufficient.”

Larson said Duro would be responsible for reimbursing the government for any money spent on emergency repairs.

The conflict between Duro and the federal government began in the late 1990s, when local officials began cracking down on illegal trailer parks hidden away on land in rural Riverside County. Duro opened 40 acres of his land to the migrant workers who were being displaced. With trailers in tow, the workers flocked to the new mobile home park – and kept coming.