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Judge to rule on Calif. migrant housing camp

/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of Latin American migrant workers who live in a mobile home park on Indian tribal land southeast of Los Angeles could soon be homeless if a federal judge orders the encampment shut down.

The government has been trying to close Desert Mobile Home Park for several years because of alleged health and safety violations, including raw sewage in the streets, inadequate drinking water and a jerry-rigged electrical system. Because the park is on Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian land, it is exempt from state and local health and safety codes.

U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson was expected to rule Monday, but later delayed for two weeks a decision on whether to send federal marshals to close the encampment and evict its residents. Larson took an extensive tour of the park last month to see the conditions firsthand.

At a hearing earlier this month, Larson said he would shut down the park unless its owner, Harvey Duro Sr., presented a detailed plan to fix electricity, water and sewage systems by Monday's hearing. The judge could order the park closed immediately or he could give residents several weeks or months to find other housing.

But closing the park, which is in the fertile Coachella Valley about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles, would flood an already overwhelmed affordable housing market in surrounding Riverside County.

The county currently has a 40,000-person waiting list for subsidized or low-income housing, with no new units expected before 2010. The only other affordable apartments are at least 90 minutes away, according to papers filed Friday.

Cheap housing is key for the 4,000 migrant workers who live in the Desert Mobile Home Park during peak harvest season and for the region's economy. The migrants, who make as little as $15,000 annually, pick some of the nearly $1 billion worth of table grapes, dates, chili peppers and other crops that the region yields each year.

Last summer, a fire displaced 120 residents, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs paid for an independent inspection that launched the government's latest drive to shut the park down.

That inspection found sewage wastewater several inches deep, dead rodents, swarms of flies and animal feces at the encampment, as well as inadequate drinking water, a dangerous electrical system, severe overcrowding and fire hazards, according to court papers.