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Police clear out farmworker camp on contentious Calexico land

Imperial County’s farmworkers have long suffered from insufficient housing and poor wages.
Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Calexico police officers arrest Hugo Castro who refused to move from the community garden at the Calexico farmworkers encampment, April 7, 2020. Castro is one of the organizers who started the encampment in January.

IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. — Calexico police disbanded without incident a temporary encampment Wednesday morning, removing rows of tents and belongings that had served as a home for farmworkers and others since late January.

Most occupants had already left for work when city officials arrived. Police had posted multiple signs around the site earlier this week giving notice of the pending cleanup, but chairs, flags, barbecue grills and other items remained.

Hugo Castro, an encampment organizer, was arrested after refusing to leave a community garden that had been planted at the site. Even as the cleanup loomed, Castro continued early Wednesday to tend to the rows of old tires that were briefly given new lives as garden beds.

He was cited for unlawful assembly and released.

Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Calexico police officers remove a mattress from a tent at the Calexico farmworkers encampment, April 7, 2020.

About seven people had stayed at the encampment Tuesday night. Community group Calexico Needs Change set up the site on city-owned land along the U.S.-Mexico border to house farmworkers who are either homeless or live in Mexicali and want to avoid the hours-long commute across the border.

The land is of little financial value to the city and can’t be built on because of a perpetual easement. It sits on an unpaved road that the U.S. Border Patrol uses for monitoring and enforcement.

But the small parcel now has become a major point of contention for the divided Calexico City Council, which has sparred in recent months over the property’s fate.

It’s also crucial for the federal government, which was attempting to buy the land under the Trump administration to build a second border wall in Imperial County.

Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Calexico Chief of Police Gonzalo Gerardo speaks with Councilmember Gloria Romo before clearing a farmworker encampment in Calexico, April 7, 2020. Councilmember Romo was advocating for postponment of the police action.

Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said the cleanup was prompted by complaints from nearby residents and concerns for the safety of the encampment’s occupants. The vacant lot is at the end of an intersection and has been the site of two crashes, he said.

“At this point, you can’t be there,” he said Wednesday. “It’s unsafe.”

Representatives from Spread the Love Charity, a Brawley nonprofit that works with the homeless, were at the site Wednesday to help some of the encampment’s occupants find space at the local men’s shelter run by the Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego. Employees with the county’s Behavioral Health Services Department also came to provide information on available services.

Rudy Marchello had been staying at the encampment for a couple of days. The 66-year-old told inewsource he’s homeless and has been in Calexico for less than a year. After staying closer to the downtown area, he said he feels “less bothered” at the encampment.

Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Rudy Marchello cleans dust off of his boots at an encampment in Calexico, April 6, 2020. Marchello works as an irrigator on a farm and has been staying at the encampment for a few days.

Marchello was hoping he’d get help with housing options but left for work by the time Spread the Love arrived. He said he’s waiting to hear back after applying with the Calexico Housing Authority.

“That’s what I want,” he said Tuesday night. “I want to find my place, a room, and I pay my rent.”

Jessica Solorio, Spread the Love’s executive director and founder, said those still at the camp Wednesday all need long-term assistance. The group plans to work with the occupants on immigration paperwork issues and offered help with transitional housing.

“All I can do is offer services,” Solorio said. “And it’s up to them to take.”

Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Antonio Cuevas, left, and Alejandro Cazares moved belongings from the encampment to the outside of a neighbor's apartment, Calexico, April 7, 2020. Both have agreed to stay in a Calexico shelter for the night if there are beds available for them.

An economy largely driven by its $4.5 billion agriculture industry, Imperial County has long suffered from high poverty and poor health factors. Its farmworkers — a common sight in Calexico, where thousands start their day before dawn to check in for jobs — have long been plagued by insufficient housing options, low wages and barriers to healthcare.

The 181,000-person county has seen its homeless numbers spike in recent years, in part because of increased activity at what’s known as Slab City, a former military base that’s now an off-the-grid community.

Last year, the county’s homeless population increased by 8%, from 1,413 to 1,527. All but about 200 are sheltered.

After the encampment was cleared, Border Patrol shifted secondary barriers onto the property that had been sitting just south of the site. Spokesperson Carlos Pitones told inewsource that puts the barrier in its original position after it was moved last year to accommodate construction at a neighboring apartment complex.

Credit: Zoë Meyers/inewsource
Workers move a secondary border barrier into the parcel of land where the Calexico farmworkers encampment was located, Calexico, April 7, 2020.

Last month, the Calexico City Council voted 3-2 to sell the land to the federal government, a deal that had been in the works since last summer.

But the vote came too late. After inewsource inquired whether the sale complied with President Joe Biden’s suspension of border construction, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said the agency was “unable to move forward with purchasing at this time.”

Calexico City Manager Miguel Figueroa later issued a statement saying officials are awaiting a final determination from the federal government, though “it could take some time.” He did not say how the city took a vote without knowing it couldn’t move forward under Biden’s proclamation that was issued about two months prior.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Tuesday that wall construction remains paused while federal agencies continue to review contracts and develop a plan that will be submitted to the president.

WATCH: What suspended border construction means for Calexico