The immigration reform debate is bringing more attention than ever to the people coming to this country to live and work. Even while working in essential industries, many immigrants live somewhat invisible lives.
That's certainly true for the 15,000 or more farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley, an agricultural region east of Palm Springs. Here the land is rich, but most of the people are not, and mobile home parks make up a significant amount of housing for the area's workers.
Near the small unincorporated town of Thermal is a mobile home park called Duroville. For the past few months, demolition teams have come out early in the morning, moving up and down its dirt roads. Bulldozers tear down empty units to make sure that no one else can move in.
Twenty-year-old Adrian Pena spent much of his childhood in Duroville, which at its height housed as many as 4,000 people. It became notorious for its bad conditions: A substandard electrical system caused major fires, and half-century-old mobile homes leaked wind and rain. Still, like other residents, Pena is attached to Duroville.
"The one thing I'm not going to miss is the muddy floors," he says. "Everything else I'll probably miss, because I know I'll always end up calling this place my home, no matter what."
In 2009, a Riverside County judge ordered Duroville closed, and after years of litigation and bureaucratic holdups, it's now happening -- but only when residents secure alternative housing.
Five miles away sits Mountain View Estates, where 10 new mobile homes get moved in each week. It cost $26 million to build, and much of that came from California's now-defunct Redevelopment Agency. This park is only for former Duroville residents, and it boasts pristine landscaping, vigilant security and a park where kids play soccer after school. Across the street from the park, field worker Liliana Mendoza beams as she shows off the home she shares with her husband, son and sister.
"I have a big kitchen, I have my own room, and my baby has his own room," she says proudly. Compared with Duroville, she almost laughs, "I'm better here, I'm happy."
It costs more to live here than in Duroville, but Mendoza says it's worth it. She says she thinks she knows why few people, especially urbanites, aren't more concerned about affordable housing for farmworkers like her.
"They don't look for the farmers over here," she says. "Most of the people in the city doesn't know that there's a place over here. There's people living in bad condition over here."
Mendoza knows she's one of the lucky ones.
Immigrant rights attorney Megan Beaman sits at a computer with a Google Earth image of Duroville on the screen.
"The concern for us is that people believe the fight might be over," she says, "or this was last hurdle in eastern Coachella Valley housing."
She zooms out to show the sheer magnitude of mobile home parks here.
"Less than a mile from Duroville we can see there are a number of other parks, including one that's even larger than Duroville," she says.
Zooming further, you see a checkerboard of farmland and open desert, and hundreds of mobile home parks.
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On some parks in the region, there are just a handful of mobile homes. Others house hundreds. Some, like Duroville, are on tribal land. Other property owners are farmers or former farmworkers. Some parks meet all of Riverside County's health and safety codes. More than 100 don't have all the required permits. Plenty of these function well, but others have sketchy wiring or borderline septic systems that leak.
That angers state Assemblyman Victor Manuel Perez, who grew up in this valley.
"This is the United States of America," Perez says. "This is not Cuba here, we're not in El Salvador, we're not in Africa. We're in one of the richest countries, if not the richest country, in the world. I know that there are limited resources, I get that, but I just find it interesting that disproportionately it's our working poor and folks of color that are impacted negatively."
Perez has shepherded bills through the Legislature to improve living conditions in mobile home parks.
Ideally, substandard parks like Duroville would be replaced by more permanent and regulated housing, like Mountain View Estates or affordable apartments and houses. Over the years the county and organizations such as the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition built thousands of units. Now, though, the Redevelopment Agency is gone, and with it a major funding source, but there are still thousands of families on waiting lists. So, many housing advocates argue for pragmatism: Funnel resources into rehabilitating mobile home parks where people already live.
One such park is Valenzuela. Tucked between two major roads in the middle of farmland, 11 families form a close-knit community here. On Jan. 9, their power went out. Residents now spend more than $10 daily for gas to use generators a few hours a day to power stoves for cooking and lights for the kids to do homework.
With her 2-year-old in tow, Eva Zamora walks me past a generator shared by three mobile homes, with extension cords running every which way.
"You can see that there are lots of cables and it's so dangerous for the children," she says in Spanish.
One extension cord runs from the generator into the window of a mobile home. She walks me into her home and opens her refrigerator to show me its empty shelves.
"Here you can see I have nothing in my refrigerator, not even milk for my kids because it spoils during the day," she says. "Look, we can't have anything. We have nothing."
Like many parks without permits in the area, this one built up slowly, one mobile home at a time. For years, electrical power was pulled from the park's water well. When that system just gave out, the landowner got help from the advocacy organization Pueblo Unido and approached the county with a plan to restore power temporarily. County officials said no, saying other aspects of the site weren't up to code, and a lot of legal wrangling ensued. Resident Cirilo Ortega says the main concern is for the children, especially as the temperatures here rise near 100 degrees.
"They feel hot, they start to mourn, cry and cry, and they cannot withstand the temperature within the mobile homes," he explains in Spanish. "We are very concerned about this."
Ortega says the county offered them short-term housing subsidies to relocate. But here he practically lives in the fields where he works. He makes under $200 a week, and says he can't afford the gas to commute to work. Because they come from the same village in Mexico, Ortega and his neighbors know and trust one another. They want power here, while the property owner works to get the whole park up to code with the county.
"To be honest [county officials] wouldn't like to live the way we are living right now," Ortega says. "I understand politics, and I'm grateful they worry about our safety, but they are not concerned about our needs at this moment. Electricity is vital for the entire world."
Monica Telles works for the county's Economic Development Department, and she knows people are frustrated. Rehabilitating even a small park can cost over $100,000 or more, and at parks with more than 15 mobile homes, the costs grow exponentially. County officials are working on bringing fees down, and in the last decade -- when their budget was healthier -- they offered help to small park owners.
"Funds were available for property owners to permit their parks, to pay for construction, to pay for permits," she says. "Only 15 took advantage of that opportunity."
She suspects that owners bristled at the restrictions that taking the money would require. She says the county is concerned about parks getting temporary fixes and then not bringing all the utilities, such as water, electric and septic, up to code.
"Just because it's operable doesn't mean it's safe," Telles says. "If someone is asking the planning department, anybody to sign off on something they do not know is safe, I don't know who would do that."
Sister Gaby Williams is a Dominican nun who's worked with mobile home parks here for a decade. She has raised awareness, and money, from wealthy retirees in resort areas to the west, and has rallied volunteer contractors to work alongside residents to make state-approved upgrades. Now they're focusing on a community center and teen computer space at a centrally located mobile home park.
As part of the project, they've built a water system that extracts naturally occurring arsenic from the water, a problem all around the region. The water system was ready a year ago, but Williams says they can't start using it because the ramps they had for the community center yards away didn't meet ADA requirements.
"There's a lot of things that are not spoken and explained or asked," says Williams about the bureaucracy around mobile home rehabilitation. "It's, 'Oh just follow this list here,' and it's only a partial list. Then you get that list done and then they show you another list. So, there's a lot of confusion. I think they would like to not have mobile home systems. But that is the affordable housing."
The real dilemma is: How do residents, advocates and government agencies balance the need for housing to be up to code with the reality of people's living situations?
Just last week, Valenzuela residents heard what might be good news for them: After multiple inspections and calls from politicians, the county approved permits for temporary electricity for some of their mobile homes, if safety and long-term permitting plans are in place. They're hoping to get power back on soon.