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Indian Rentals to Migrant Workers Leads to Lawsuit : San Diego County: The Tribal Council claims that the transient-type housing on reservation land poses dangers of fire, water pollution and disease.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pablo Martinez has slept in the brush and beneath the citrus groves, like many other Mexican farm laborers in the San Diego area, but he says it is no way for his wife and two children to live.

The family now lives on the Rincon Indian reservation in a battered trailer in an isolated backcountry enclave east of Valley Center and Escondido.

They have no electricity, and the modest space is extremely cramped, but it is certainly affordable--about $140 a month--and Martinez realizes that it is a great luxury for migrants in his position. He does have a roof over his head, something many of his homeless countrymen lack.

“Where else could I find a place to rent so cheaply?” Martinez asks, demonstrating for a visitor how he uses his car battery to provide light inside the immaculate trailer. “I guess I was just lucky.”

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His family is one of scores of poor Mexican immigrant families, mostly farm workers, who have gravitated to this 5,000-acre Native American parcel in search of affordable living space. Many work in Valley Center, 8 miles to the southeast, a thriving, upscale rural area where residents eager to preserve a “country” lifestyle have successfully resisted land-use changes to allow low-income housing.

However, the immigrants’ presence here is at the center of a divisive controversy that has pitted Indian against Indian and is now being litigated in Superior Court in Vista. The tribal council contends that the housing poses dangers of fire, water pollution and disease, an assertion denied by the Indian landowners. Caught in the middle are the migrants, mostly farm laborers and their families.

It is a dispute, everyone agrees, that stems in essence from insufficient housing for farm workers throughout San Diego County, a region with a booming, almost $800-million-a-year agricultural industry. Yet thousands of field hands areawide live in crude shacks in the brush, unable to afford high area rents. Others seek inexpensive, albeit substandard, housing in areas such as Rincon, where Indians attempt to make some cash by renting out plots of land and temporary dwellings.

“Why should these farm workers and their families be farmed off to the reservation?” asked Claudia Smith, regional counsel in Oceanside for California Rural Legal Aid, a migrant-advocacy organization, who says the real answer to the problem lies in the construction of affordable housing for farm workers. “The Indians aren’t the real villains here, although I’m sure there is some gouging of rents.”

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This week, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a new housing blueprint for the Valley Center area, a plan that is to be discussed amid a charged debate that pits slow-growth advocates against those who favor more affordable housing for agricultural laborers and other low-income residents.

For leaders of the Rincon Indians, however, the unsightly presence of the mobile homes, trailers, campers and other low-rent units represents a threat to the well-being of the entire community. As many as 300 migrant laborers and their families live on the reservation during peak employment periods in citrus and avocado groves on non-tribal land, according to the officials here.

The Rincon tribal council, alarmed at the proliferation of what it considers illegal and dangerous numbers in such temporary dwellings, has filed civil suits against several Indian landowners, seeking to shut down the sites. In court papers, the tribe condemned one land owner as a “slumlord,” and said that living conditions at the rental sites are “deplorable and shock the conscience.” A trial is scheduled for Dec. 10.

Many facilities lack running water, electricity, trash collection and other basic services, the tribe alleged, a predicament that often forces renters to jury-rig connections to existing water sources and electrical outlets. Indian leaders fear fires, the pollution of the tribal ground-water supply and the outbreak of diseases--the latter a particular concern after several children living in a crude trailer park contracted hepatitis late last year. Bathrooms are often outhouses or holes in the ground.

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“We know these people and their families deserve a place to live, but it’s not our responsibility,” said James Fletcher, tribal administrator for the 700-member band, which is one of more than 2 dozen Mission Indian groups in Southern California. “We have enough trouble providing housing to our own members.”

Tribal leaders want to see the substandard trailer parks disbanded, or brought up to community codes, and authorities say all future facilities must comply with housing standards. In May, the tribal council passed an emergency ordinance forbidding the construction of new trailer rental units without council approval.

Behind the dispute is a pronounced belief on the part of tribal leaders that residents of relatively affluent area communities such as Valley Center would prefer that migrant farm workers and their families live in places such as Rincon, conveniently out of sight once their farm work is done.

“It would sure be nice for Valley Center and other areas in San Diego if we set up housing centers for farm workers, but we don’t have the ability,” said Fletcher, who noted that the reservation, like other native-American communities, has an unemployment rate approaching 50%. “If Valley Center built some housing for farm workers, it would solve a lot of this problem. We shouldn’t have to bear the brunt.”

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In fact, absent the construction of affordable housing in Valley Center and other agricultural areas in San Diego County, the Rincon reservation provides a kind of stopgap solution that, although far from ideal, at least gets people out of the brush.

“Valley Center has achieved its much-cherished rural environment literally on the back of farm workers, and yet the workers and their families are denied an opportunity to live there,” noted Smith, the California Rural Legal Aid attorney in Oceanside.

The Indian land owners being sued by the tribal council have challenged the lawsuit, asserting that the mobile home units measure up to tribal standards. The landowners say they have a right to lease the land to the farm workers or anyone else. Michael T. Larsen, an Escondido attorney representing two of those being sued, declined to comment.

One of the landowners, who spoke anonymously, accused the council of harassment, contending that the rental scheme helps both the Indians and the farm workers. “This is an opportunity for us to make some money, and for the people to have a place to live,” the landowner said, speaking from the driver’s seat of a pickup truck on the reservation.

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In fact, that seems to be the sentiment shared by many of the migrant laborers who live on the reservation, often in clearly substandard conditions.

“If I couldn’t live here, I don’t know where I would go,” said Pablo Benitez, 30, a native of the Mexican state of Morelos who lives in a trailer here with his wife, Victoria, and three children, Gabriel, 7, Adriana, 4, and Daisy, 8 months. He works at a nearby mushroom farm.

“I guess I could find another cheap park somewhere, but I don’t know where,” said Benitez, who has rented space for his trailer on Indian property for two years.

He and his family live on one of the parks whose legality is being challenged by the tribal council. It is an agglomeration of perhaps a dozen trailers and camper shells, mostly inhabited by Mexican families whose men mostly work minimum-wage jobs in fields off of tribal land.

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