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A Shantytown in the Shadow of Luxury

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A Shantytown in the Shadow of Luxury

Race

A Shantytown in the Shadow of Luxury

A Shantytown in the Shadow of Luxury

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For years in San Diego County, Latino farm laborers, construction workers and day laborers have lived in makeshift camps without plumbing or electricity. The camps are close by multi-million-dollar homes.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

San Diego is located along one of the most fortified sections of that U.S./Mexico border, but the city still struggles with illegal immigration. In fact, hundreds of migrant farm workers are living in the canyons outside of San Diego, in makeshift shanties, right next to beautiful homes with gorgeous ocean views.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the migrants have been there for years, despite massive federal efforts to stop them at the border.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

In northern San Diego County, Jose Gonzales heads into a canyon alongside a flower farm. He walks down a well-worn dirt path. The lights from the Lego Land Theme Park across the street brighten the night sky.

Mr. JOSE GONZALES (Farm Worker, San Diego): There's people living right here in the canyon.

KAHN: We're just walking along this path. And you think people are just in the bushes here?

Mr. GONZALES: Yeah.

KAHN: Gonzales frequently makes the rounds here, bringing aid to San Diego farm workers. He says there are about 15 men living under the trees and shrubs in this canyon.

Gonzales wakes one of the men, 24-year old Primativo Garcia-Hernandez(ph). The young man stumbles out of the tiny wooden shack that's tucked tightly under the branches of a low-lying tree. Water jugs and soda cans are strewn alongside two worn lawn chairs. Hernandez says he made his shack out of whatever he could find.

Even though his home is made of scraps, Hernandez says it's held up for two years. He can't afford to live in town. Aid worker Gonzales says none of the men can. No landlord will give them the time of day.

Mr. GONZALES: They won't rent to them, especially when they tell them they're single and they work in the field. And you know, they're making the minimum wage.

KAHN: Hernandez makes 6.75 an hour picking flowers at the nearby nursery. He says living in the canyon allows him to send more money back home to his wife in Mexico. Hernandez is one of many generations of migrant farm workers who found shelter in the canyons in San Diego.

Twenty years ago, the local PBS TV station documented the problem as established farms gave way to plush new neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of PBS show)

Unidentified Host: Quarter-million dollar homes dot this region, as new communities' spring up practically overnight. Scattered throughout this area, in stark contrast to many two and three-car garage homes, are hundreds of makeshift migrant camps.

KAHN: Two decades later, the only real change is the price tag on those homes, which now go for well over a million dollars. Add to that the latest building boom; it's put a mansion on nearly every visible hillside. And it's narrowed the buffer between residents and canyon-dwellers. Ray Van Meter(ph) lives in the upscale community of Rancho Penascitos(ph) with his wife and two kids. He was surprised to see a trailhead in his backyard.

Mr. RAY VAN METER (Resident of Rancho Penascitos, San Diego): I followed it down. I got to a point where I saw half a dozen bicycles parked and leaned over. And I said, Hmm, those aren't kid's bicycles. And I walked down in there. And then I became afraid and I backed out.

KAHN: Van Meter, who sits on the local town council, says police later found eight men living in the canyon. He says the migrants live in primitive conditions, without toilets or running water. And having them so close by makes some of the neighbors nervous.

Mr. VAN METER: This is from my wife and some of the neighbor ladies that come to me and go, Ray, you know, I can't even walk up to my grocery story without six men staring at me, making me feel uncomfortable. And not that they may not stare any more or less than any other man, legal or otherwise, but they happened to be congregated in one circle and you have to walk very close to them.

KAHN: When San Diego city officials have tried to build farm worker housing, they've met with strong opposition from neighbors. And farmers have little incentive to invest in migrant shelters, since most are leasing land from developers who could put them out of business at any time. Primativo Hernandez, who lives in the canyon, isn't waiting for a solution to the problem; he's heading back to Mexico next month to spend the $10,000 he's saved over the past two years.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: (Spanish speaking)

KAHN: He says he'll use it to build a real home for himself and his wife. But he adds, once it's built, he'll still have to come back to the flower fields and work again illegally.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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