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The Forbidden City, Part II

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.”

The Forbidden City

As the immigration debate spills out into the streets, inciting high school students to protest en masse and volunteer brigades to patrol the borders, San Diego could well be considered ground zero in the nation’s struggle.

But often lost in the flurry of statistics and emotions are the details of the very lives that are being debated. Voice staff writer Will Carless spent five days living with a group of undocumented migrant workers in a Carmel Valley canyon.

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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.

“Before, it was really out of sight, out of mind. Now there’s so much less space for people to camp in, that this has become a bigger issue,” he said.

Some of the hottest topics in the immigration debate don’t apply to the migrants of Carmel Valley. The controversial issues of schooling, welfare and healthcare are not really germane to a population so far removed from mainstream society.

The canyon-dwellers are almost all men. Of 200 people, there are only one or two women in the camp at any one time. There are currently no families living in the camps of Carmel Valley, and therefore the migrants have no children attending the area’s schools. The men hardly ever use medical services. Except in the most severe emergencies, they rely on a network of helpers and volunteers to treat their aches and pains. Often, they simply struggle through any injury.

These men represent an estimated 60 percent of all illegal border-crossers into the United States: Men, traveling without their families, with the sole purpose of finding work.

In the same way that their huts are hidden, camouflaged under trees and bushes, these men have become San Diego’s secret workforce, hidden from the benefits of civilized society and also hidden from the debate that rages over illegal immigration.

“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.”

That net benefit, Hanson said, comprises the contributions these men make to San Diego’s economy. They provide the county with a supply of cheap labor, men who work hard but do not expect such niceties as meal breaks or overtime pay.

These days, the valley’s migrant workers are more likely to be employed as landscapers or as construction workers in the area’s booming home-building industry than as strawberry or tomato pickers. Even more likely, however, is that they spend most of their days simply waiting on the street or outside a nearby Home Depot, searching for work as a day laborer for a local homeowner or contractor.

Flores is one of those men.

Like most of the men, the 24-year old migrant from Oaxaca in southern Mexico has a family back home. He has a wife and four children. Whenever he works, he takes as much money as he can to the local Western Union office and wires it back to his family. Recently, that flow of money has dried up with the work, and he’s concerned about how his family is surviving.

Recently, Flores has been considering bailing out – leaving the canyon to try to get a ride up to Santa Maria, an hour or so north of Santa Barbara. He has family there, and he’s heard he can make $6.75 an hour picking strawberries.

For five hours every morning, Flores stands on a small, grassy rise at the side of the road. Recently, he has not been hopeful about his prospects. Who wants to work on their house when it’s raining? What landscaper is going to be planting trees when the soil is sodden and heavy?

Like many of the other migrant workers who are camped out in the canyons of Carmel Valley, Flores is here for one very simple reason: money.

In one day working on a building site or doing some temporary work for a private homeowner, a migrant from Mexico can earn more than they can in 10 days at home. The going rate for labor is $8 an hour, more if they can find a permanent job. The simple fact is that the conditions they live in – squatting in tiny shacks with no running water or amenities, and the long hours they spend looking for work – are more than worth it.

“I’m here to work,” Flores said. “There’s no other reason, I just want to work as much as I can.”

The best job is to work for a private homeowner, Flores and other migrants said. The local people take pity on the workers and often send them away with old clothes, furniture and other cast-offs. When he works in local people’s gardens, Flores said, they sometimes make him lunch, which is nice. It makes him feel human again.

Not everybody in the community is as welcoming to the migrants, however. A number of local activists have been calling for something to be done about the unsightly camps that dot their countryside.

“They’re very inter-mingled within our community, and the health concerns that they bring are very real concerns,” Van Meter said.

Van Meter said he’s also especially worried about the fire risk the men pose.

Every night, there are a few dozen open flames burning in the canyon. From the candle a worker uses to read, to the open barbecue shared by a group of men, the potential fire hazards are everywhere in the camp.

Yet despite the overgrown vegetation, the arid climate and the overcrowding, the San Diego Fire Department said they have never been called to a fire in the canyon. Unlike other parts of the city, where many fires are started every year by transients, the fire chief at the station in Carmel Valley could not remember responding to a single fire in the migrant camps over the past five years.

“Basically, what we’ve found is that the immigrants up there keep the fires small. Culturally, they seem to be very sensitive to the dangers of fires, and they don’t want raging fires going, because they don’t want to be reported by residents,” said Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire Department.

Nevertheless, local residents are still concerned.

Dave Hill lives in house nearest to the migrant camp. His back yard borders the open space where the men have settled and at night he can look out at the twinkling lights of the candles and cooking fires,

“My house would be the first to get hit if there was a fire, and that does worry me,” Hill said.

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.

Last year, Peters successfully asked the San Diego City Council to approve the concept of building housing for the workers, and Peters’ staff has since been chasing a state housing grant, which would potentially provide some $3 million to build basic, dormitory-style accommodations.

Tyler Sherer, an aide to Peters who has been overseeing the grant application, said the plans to build housing are currently being held up as the city tries to find somewhere to build such accommodation.

Without a site, there’s no grant, he said, and finding a community willing to host a couple hundred undocumented male migrants has not been easy.

Currently, the city is looking at sites in industrial areas of town, away from large tracts of housing. The difficulty with such sites, Sherer said, is that they are typically too far away from the areas where the migrants work. Without transportation, the men would be left to make a long journey across town to work.

The workers have heard all this before. They said various groups have been talking about providing housing for them for years, but that it never happens. Besides, they said, if they move out of the canyon, a new batch of migrants would surely take up residence behind them.

The men will keep coming, they said, until there is no work left for them to do.

Until then, they will put up with the mud and the cold stares and the occasional rip-off artist. As long as there is still no work in Mexico, it makes no sense for them to return. Though it pains them to be away from their families, it’s a price the valley’s migrants are simply willing to pay.

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