A Shanty Town’s Danger and Hope

Will Carless, Voice of San Diego, April 4, 2006

It’s 5:30 a.m. and dozens of workers emerge from the green folds of the canyon where they have been sleeping.

The men, red faced, puff down the slick, muddy path that descends steeply into the valley away from their hidden camp. They huddle up against the cold and prepare for a long walk to stand at the side of a nearby street and wait for work.

Several hunched figures can already be seen negotiating the criss-crossed paths that dissect the corduroy of the ploughed fields that stretch away from the valley, on their way to look for work. From afar, the men look like lonely worker ants, trooping away to start the day’s labor.

The loncheras, or lunch trucks, are waiting at the bottom of the path with hot coffee and pan dulce. Eugenio Flores is one worker who won’t be eating breakfast this morning. He hasn’t worked for three months and his credit with the lonchera owner—to whom he owes $25—is wearing thin. On the back of the truck there’s a canteen that workers use to make their coffee. Flores fills a polystyrene cup with hot water and splashes it across his creased, dark face. It’s the closest thing he will have to a hot shower.

Things are starting to look desperate for Flores. It’s been raining again, and most of the area’s construction and landscaping work is on hold until the sun comes out. He will stand at the side of the road until the late afternoon, waiting for that magic moment when a car pulls over and the driver calls out: trabajo, or “work.”

Migrants have lived in their shanty town of cobbled-together shacks in Carmel Valley for more than two decades. Bathing in a nearby stream and surviving on the fringes of one of the world’s most affluent societies, the men have carved an existence by working on nearby farms, laboring on construction sites and working illicitly for private homeowners.

The men have been a vital cog in San Diego’s economy for a long time. For decades, barely a strawberry or tomato has been picked in the county that has not been touched at one point by the hands of an undocumented migrant. Few of the vast swathes of new homes that stretch from the ocean to the desert were not built or beautified in some way by the workmanship of these men.

The camps are not going anywhere.

If the men are evicted, or deported, they say more migrants will simply take their place. The opportunities in the United States, even as an undocumented migrant, far outweigh the stagnation of their home communities, where the little work there is pays pitifully.

Nationwide, immigration concerns focus on the strain the migrants place on local services such as hospitals and schools. On the ground in San Diego, however, the community is worried about the dangers the men may pose to the population at large.

With so many men living in such desperate and squalid conditions, the risks of disease, fire and crime are what troubles local critics. Opponents of the migrants have added their voices to the call from migrant advocates for permanent housing to be built for the men.

That call has grown louder as the valley where the migrants live has become more and more developed, and the fields where they once worked have disappeared under housing. Scott Peters, who is president of the San Diego City Council and in whose district many of the men live, said pressure has been building to find a solution to the camps.

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“This is a group that probably uses, well, not very much, in terms of public services,” said Gordon Hanson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego and one of the world’s foremost experts on Mexican immigration. “My guess is that this is a group for whom, if you did a cost-benefit analysis, this is a group whose net benefit to San Diego is clearly positive.”

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What Van Meter and other local critics of the migrant camps want is for the men to be given some sort of permanent housing. That’s also the goal of advocates for the migrants, who have been calling for some accommodation to be built for these men for many years.

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