Out in the Cold : Despite Some Progress, Lack of Affordable Housing Leaves Most Migrants Struggling in Makeshift Camps


This spring, unexpected good fortune has visited Cirilio Zafra, a Mexican field hand long accustomed to living in crude dwellings constructed amid the brush, like so many of his co-workers in the fertile fields of northern San Diego County.

Now, however, Zafra sleeps on a crisply made bed, purchases fresh and reasonably priced hot food at a clean cafeteria, views a big-screen television on idle evenings, has access to modern toilet facilities, and avails himself of the heretofore unimaginable luxury of hot showers.

“Life is much more tranquil,” says Zafra, 59, a father of eight and native of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, who has picked and planted tomatoes in San Diego, lettuce in the Central Valley, and apples and berries in Washington state during three decades of job-seeking wanderings in the West.

But a few hundred yards down the hill from the modern dormitory where Zafra and his co-workers reside, life is not so untroubled for Pedro Guzman and another 200 or so field hands. They inhabit a coarse encampment of dirt-floor shacks fashioned from scrap wood, bamboo and plastic--a mini-village situated amid a willow thicket flanking the San Luis Rey River, now swollen and muddy from recent rains.

Most buy food at inflated prices from catering trucks, heating it later on open fires. The bushes serve as restrooms. Candles, flashlights and campfires provide light.


“We live like this only out of necessity,” Guzman explains as he rinses clothes in a communal washing area, water provided by a hose tapped into a line meant for an adjacent cucumber field. “There is no choice for us.”

As tens of thousands of agricultural laborers return to California for the upcoming spring farm cycle, the tale of the two juxtaposed home sites says much about the desperate state of migrant housing in northern San Diego County, where--despite a labor-intensive, almost $800-million-a-year agricultural industry--decent and affordable accommodation is available for relatively few.

Here, virtually in the shadow of upscale shopping centers and $250,000 homes, thousands of otherwise homeless farm workers and day laborers--perhaps as many as 10,000 (no one knows for sure), mostly men but including some women and children--reside in illegal, makeshift camps that experts say constitute the largest and most dramatic concentration of substandard, unhealthy farm-worker living conditions found anywhere in California, if not the nation. Some live in so-called “spider holes,” gouged out of the earth.

“Amid this extraordinary vision of wealth, which San Diego represents for the nation, you have this shocking situation of people living in a Third World-like setting,” noted Don Villarejo, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a Davis-based nonprofit research and education organization that has studied the state’s almost $18-billion-a-year farm economy.

While scattered settlements of homeless agricultural laborers can be found in fields, canyons, caves and beneath roadways and bridges throughout California’s farm belts, experts say that a number of factors unique to San Diego--among them the area’s prohibitively high housing prices, its rugged topography and its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border (the latter ensuring an endless stream of cheap immigrant labor)--have meant that nowhere else has such primitive accommodation evolved as the norm.

In the midst of such a stark tableau, Cirilio Zafra’s newfound tranquility stems from a propitious circumstance: He works for a major Oceanside-based grower, Harry Singh & Sons, which last year opened a novel, $2.5-million farm-worker housing development that features dormitory-type accommodations for about 325 field hands.

They pay $16.50 a week for a bed and $6.40 a day for three hot meals. It is a veritable poor man’s palace, the largest such project ever constructed in the San Diego area, it is believed--and among the most ambitious farm-worker housing tracts built lately anywhere in California.

But, as part of the development agreement, the facility is only available to Singh workers--and only to legal U.S. residents.

To their great misfortune, Pedro Guzman and his neighbors down the hill are employed by other area growers who provide no housing whatsoever--the typical scenario here. And many camp dwellers are illegal immigrants.

Much of the North County’s agricultural work force lives in more than 200 illicit encampments, which range in size from small clearings with a few campsites to sprawling mini-communities (like Guzman’s) that provide shelter to hundreds, experts say.

The proliferating camps are situated on both private and public land. Property holders, fearing liability in case of fire or other mishaps, generally disavow knowledge of the squatters’ presence, although some have forcibly evicted trespassers, often after warnings from health authorities.

Many residents regularly take on other day-labor jobs, particularly in the construction and landscaping industries, in addition to farm work.

“They live . . . in fields, hillside, canyons, ravines and riverbeds, often on the edge of their employer’s property,” noted a report released last month by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, a study group headed by San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor. “They have suffered from years of widespread neglect.”

Now, despite the arrival of the long-awaited Singh farm project and some other hopeful developments, authorities have streamlined the rural-housing application process, and plans are on the drawing board for perhaps 200 more low-income units throughout North County, both publicly and privately funded. Officials and activists say there is no immediate prospect for the emergence of large-scale alternatives to the crude camps.

That may not be surprising considering that most San Diego-area farms are small, half consisting of fewer than 9 acres, according to an analysis by California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal aid to migrants.

Singh farms about 700 acres, making it one of the area’s largest. Worker-advocates praise the Singh effort, although many have reservations about the dependency fostered by company housing.

“What Singh did is fine, but the problem is: Do you lose your home if you complain about working conditions?” noted Claudia E. Smith, regional counsel in Oceanside for California Rural Legal Assistance. “And do you lose your job if you complain about housing conditions?”

At the moment, Smith and other advocates say, things are particularly desperate for San Diego-area field hands. Unemployment and underemployment are rising in the fields and among those who seek day jobs in home-building and other sectors that have been hard hit by the national economic downturn. And recent rains have washed out much of the early strawberry harvest, exacerbating the plight of job-seekers.

Moreover, even in the best of times, most immigrants, who typically earn the state minimum wage of $4.25 a hour, are simply unable to afford the high rents that are prevalent in one of the nation’s wealthiest and fastest-growing urban-suburban corridors.

Things are so bad now that many field hands interviewed recently in San Diego camps said the paucity of work meant they could probably not even afford the $66-per-month rent charged at the Singh property, assuming such low-cost housing was widely available, which it isn’t.

With work so scarce, the mood in San Diego’s camps seems gloomy and apprehensive.

“If we had to pay rent, we wouldn’t be able to buy food, much less send money back to our families (in Mexico),” said Guzman, a father of six, who explained that he and others living in the makeshift camp find work on the average of three days a week, six hours a day.

Farm-worker advocates fear matters could worsen in coming months as drought-related water restrictions further constrict the already-depressed market, and new job-seekers overflow the saturated labor pool.

Each day, more and more migrants arrive from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented men in their late teens and early 20s who quickly take their place in the squalid squatters’ villages that dot the landscape.

“Sure, everyone agrees that Harry Singh did a great thing, but it’s not even a drop in the bucket,” said Ramon Bobadilla, a Catholic Charities social worker who often visits campsites along the San Luis Rey River Valley. “The need is just so great. It’s a humongous problem.”

Largely because of the region’s proximity to the border, in the midst of one of the world’s busiest migratory corridors, the farm-worker population of the San Diego area is exceptionally poor, even by the generally low standards of the entire California and U.S. agricultural work force, experts say.

Most camp dwellers, according to federal officials and industry representatives, obtained legal U.S. residence status via the special agricultural worker amnesty provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Western growers, fearing a loss of the work force that is the backbone of their industry, lobbied Congress extensively for inclusion of the provisions.

However, authorities say the inexorable flow of new arrivals from the border means there is a substantial--and rising--number of undocumented immigrants who are firmly planted at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Those without papers inevitably have more difficulty obtaining work. A clear attraction of the North County area is that it is south of the U.S. Border Patrol immigration checkpoint along Interstate 5, the region’s principal north-south route.

In addition, San Diego’s farm-worker population base includes a high proportion of indigenous Mixtec Indians from Mexico’s Oaxaca state who generally have fewer resources than other Mexican-born field workers, further limiting their ability to pay rent. The same is true of the growing number of Guatemalan job-seekers, most of them Indians from northern states of that Central American republic.

In the Central Valley and elsewhere in the state, experts note, farm laborers typically cram into homes, apartments and garages, as well as into unlicensed agricultural camps, packing houses and storage sheds that double as housing.

Most pay some kind of rent. A fortunate minority do manage to gain entry into the state’s relatively small number of legal camps and publicly funded housing, where rents are controlled, noted Smith, the attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance.

Much of Imperial Valley’s work force, in contrast, resides in Mexico and commutes daily, but the 35- to 75-mile distance between the border and much of North County makes that solution impractical in San Diego.

Only in the San Diego area--with housing prices generally much higher than those found in the San Joaquin Valley and other larger agricultural zones--do so many live in such overwhelmingly bleak conditions, Smith noted. The region’s canyon-studded terrain allows squatters to find isolated spots where they can construct their homes, even amid heavily populated areas.

“Although pockets of farm-worker misery can be found throughout California’s farmlands, North County’s situation is incomparable in terms of sheer numbers,” Smith, who has represented farm laborers throughout the state for more than 17 years, stated in a recent letter.

“Nowhere else in the state--possibly, the country--do the living conditions of farm workers so consistently outdo those exposed in Edward Murrow’s classic ‘Harvest of Shame’ broadcast,” Smith added in a separate correspondence, referring to the legendary CBS journalist’s seminal 1960 documentary film exposing abuses against migrant labor in the United States.

The backward living conditions prevalent in North County date back more than a decade. But the presence of the homeless immigrants has only emerged as a central political issue in North County during the late 1980s, as rampant suburban-style development gobbled up huge swaths of rural landscape, increasing sometimes uncomfortable contacts between non-Latino residents and the overwhelmingly Latino work force.

Meantime, many thousands gained legal U.S. residence status via the farm-worker amnesty provisions of the sweeping 1986 immigration law. The prospect that newly legalized workers might abandon the fields en masse--a scenario that has yet to materialize--prompted Harry Singh & Sons to construct its housing tract in the unincorporated rural community of Bonsall, east of Oceanside, despite relentless community opposition.

Singh was forced to pay more than $400,000 in fees and hookups, which delayed completion for more than a year until it opened last December.

Last week, as rain pounded the fields of North County, greatly reducing job opportunities, Singh workers had the luxury of a sheltered place to pass time by reading, writing letters home, shooting pool and playing pinball in the company cafeteria. When the downpours abated, young men went out and played basketball and volleyball on company-built courts.

Down the hillside, however, residents of the settlement by the San Luis Rey River saw their camp transformed into a quagmire. They labored to repair leaky roofs and to channel the torrents of runoff away from their shanties. Residents huddled near campfires for heat in the near-frost.

“No one wants to live like this,” said a disgusted Agustin Valdez, a 42-year-old from the Mexican state of Oaxaca who spoke outside his boxlike dwelling of scrap wood. “We’re tired of this,” Valdez said, “but there is no place else for us.”

MONDAY: In the migrant camps of northern San Diego County, residents used a wide array of materials to construct their crude dwellings. Their inventiveness knows few limits.