Wednesday, April 05, 2006 | The Forbidden City Part III

The church service is in full swing. A white-haired, purple-robed priest murmurs prayers in English and a volunteer translates for the crowd of about 50 Mexican migrant workers. The men sit on narrow wooden benches, their faces dappled by the sunlight that filters through a blue tarp strung overhead. Around the crowd stands a quieter congregation of eucalyptus trees, their heads bowed low above the prayers.

When the worship is over, the migrants file quietly through the mud back to the makeshift shantytown of tarps and plywood that they have built in a nearby canyon. The church volunteers pack up Bibles and song books and lock the chapel’s benches in place with a heavy iron padlock. Then they emerge from their evergreen evangelism into the sunshine that beams down all around the thicket where the church is hidden.

The volunteers walk to their cars, parked on the streets of a nearby tract home development. Then they drive off, leaving one world for another.

As the national debate over undocumented workers rages around it in the nation’s streets and along its borders, the Carmel Valley migrant workers’ chapel, with its tiny, well-tended garden and its brightly tiled altar, is an oasis. It’s the one place in the valley where the migrants stand side-by-side with local homeowners.

The church volunteers, all of whom live nearby and are members of a local congregation, bring food and medical supplies to the migrants every Sunday. The Rev. Frank Fawcett, a local priest, visits the open-air chapel in-between services at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic church in Rancho Penasquitos.

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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“I don’t think of these men as aliens, because aliens come from another planet,” Fawcett said.

But the community around the church remains a chasm of contrasts. On the streets, the latest luxury SUVs glide past migrants riding old bicycles to work. In the neighborhood’s new gated communities, homeowners are incubated from the harsh reality of the workers’ camps. Though mere yards separate million-dollar homes from mud-splashed huts, the distance between the two communities remains almost overwhelming.

Many homeowners, like Tracy Lipscomb, have never met the migrants.

The mother and home-maker’s jaw dropped when she found out how many men are living a stones-throw from the back yard of the home she owns in a fancy new Italian-named development. She had seen the men walk by, she said, but they remain a vague concept to her.

“I’ve been wanting to leave blankets and stuff by the trails,” she said. “But I didn’t know if they would want them.”

The migrants say it is better to keep to themselves. Apart from leaving the camps to work or to look for work, they are wary of being seen around their community. Even if they could afford such luxuries, they would avoid the nearby shopping malls and cinemas, where many of them do not feel comfortable.

The workers’ world is largely self-contained: A network of ingenuity and kinship that has been ticking along for more than two decades. As such, it is also as non-integrated as any community in the United States, cut off in almost every way from the world around it.

Within the camp, there is something akin to a caste system. On the outskirts of the settlement, nearest to the houses, live the Oaxacans. Largely un-schooled, these men live the simplest lives in the canyon.

The Oaxacans sleep in tiny cobbled-together huts, barely big enough to house the small beds they have fashioned from wooden tomato stakes. Their few possessions lie on the bare earth by their beds and many have small crucifixes tacked up on the otherwise bare walls.

Most of the migrants from Oaxaca shun political debate. Asked about the contrasts they see around them, many of the Oaxacans seemed to have almost a natural deference to the wealth and higher social status of the community around them.

“These people have education, they are not like us,” said Alfonso Quixos Najeras, a Oaxacan migrant who works occasionally as a laborer.

But in the deeper reaches of the camp, some of the men have established larger, more permanent mini-villages. Some of these men even have their own trucks or vans. One group of migrants has even planted a garden of fruit trees and herbs beside the huts the men sleep in.

The men in the more developed parts of the camp tend to be better informed than the other migrants. Their often politically charged views on life in San Diego are markedly different to the casual acceptance of many of the workers.

To some of these better-established, better educated migrants, the men who live in the canyon are not merely an anomaly in the squeaky-clean manufactured neighborhoods of Carmel Valley, but are an integral part of the community – as ingrained in the character of the land as the yellow soil or the sage brush. As such, these men question why they are treated like outlaws by some members of San Diego society.

“I want people to give me the same respect and opportunities that they give Americans – Not because I am brown, or because I am white, but because I am human,” said one migrant, who did not want his name to be used.

To a certain extent, the call for equality can be heard on the other side of the many barriers between the new neighborhoods and the workers’ camp.

Many of the homeowners in the tract home developments that surround the migrant workers’ camp expressed empathy for their neighbors. That empathy was also tinged with an element of respect for this group that has been in the valley for more than 20 years.

“They were here before I was, so what right do I have to tell them to get out,” said Dave Hill, who owns a house that looks out across the camp.

Selwyn Moss, who lives across the street from Hill, echoed the views of his neighbor and summed up how many of the area’s homeowners feel about the presence of the migrants.

“I’m ambivalent,” he said. “They’re not doing any harm, so live and let live.”

That view is not shared by everyone in the community, however.

Council President Scott Peters, in whose district the camp is located, said he receives many complaints about the men, varying from concerns about fire risks and sanitation to concerns about the environmental effect the men are having on the natural canyon.

Ray Van Meter, a member of the Rancho Penasquitos Town Council, shares those fears. He said he doesn’t object so much to what the men of the canyon are trying to accomplish, but that he can’t ignore the legal status of the men who share his community.

“Right now, they’re in violation of the law. They’ve broken the law to be here and they’re here illegally. The law is the law so either enforce it or change it,” he said.

Therein lies another contrast. Many of the men living in the shanty towns of the canyons are undocumented workers. Ostensibly, they are in the country illegally, yet they live in relative peace from the authorities.

The men find work, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, and while they are concerned about raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, they know that they will be largely ignored as long as they are providing a service to the community.

Lieutenant Chris Ellis, with the San Diego Police Department Northern Division, explained that the SDPD maintains a policy of not actively searching out immigration law violations. The police department leaves the enforcement of immigration law to federal law enforcement, in order to free up the local police to focus on the prevention of crime, Ellis said.

He said his men have a good relationship with the migrant workers. They often communicate directly with the men, and some of the officers are well-known around the camps.

Indeed, the cooperation between the migrants and San Diego authorities was illustrated recently when the migrants were informed that they must start to clean up the trash that they have been leaving all over the canyon. That trash had begun to pose a real risk to health and to the environment, the workers said, and they were told by local advocates that the littering must stop.

Ever since, the migrants have been bagging up their trash and leaving the garbage sacks on an open rise in the midst of the canyon. That trash is then picked up by someone in the local community – the migrants did not know who – on a regular basis.

But despite cooperation on a local level, ultimately, the fate of the migrant workers of Carmel Valley could be decided in the halls of Washington, D.C.

As the issue of the undocumented workforce in the United States comes to a head, and lawmakers across the country tackle the immigration problem, migrants like the 200 men who share the Carmel Valley canyon will likely see their lives change. Whether the laws being hashed out in the nation’s capital will grant them amnesty or further criminalize their very existence in the country remains to be seen.

Until then, however, the men will continue to troop down every Sunday morning to the one real oasis of acceptance that exists for them.

In church, among the trees of the valley, they will continue to offer up prayers to a higher power. Those prayers, like the prayers of the last 20 years, will rise into the sky above the valley to mingle with the seeds and the fumes from the SUVs and the scent of the sage-brush.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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