An encampment reserved for farmworkers was erected on a city-owned parcel near First Street and Andrade Avenue that the city had previously considered selling to the federal government to install a secondary border barrier. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
CALEXICO — Two City Council members have voiced their support for a makeshift encampment that was recently erected adjacent to the border barrier near Andrade Avenue and First Street and is being used to house farmworkers.
Beyond their vocal support, council members Gloria Romo and Raul Ureña also felt obliged to bring food to the few individuals who chose to sleep at the encampment after it was established on Monday, Jan. 25.
The encampment was created, without any formal permission, by a local representative of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) on a city-owned parcel that the city had previously considered selling to the federal government to install a secondary border barrier.
“It’s very just what they are doing,” Romo said, referring to CHIRLA’s effort.
The encampment consists of about a dozen tents and is likely to remain in place until the city can formally designate an alternative location for the site, Ureña said on Thursday, Jan. 28.
It is situated on the northern side of an unpaved road that is adjacent to the border barrier and which is used by Border Patrol to monitor and patrol the area.
The Border Patrol, which was not consulted about the encampment, indicated that it doesn’t have any plans to force the removal of the cluster of tents since it does not have jurisdiction over the site, the agency’s Public Affairs Office stated.
“The encampment has not presented a security risk or an interruption in Border Patrol operations, but we will continue to assess the situation as we do with all border activity,” stated Agent Anthony Garcia in an email on Jan. 28.
The purpose of the encampment is to provide overnight shelter for farmworkers who live in Mexicali but who wish to avoid prolonged border-crossing times and then milling idly about the city’s streets while awaiting work, said Hugo Castro, CHIRLA Southern/Baja California region organizer.
Even prior to establishing the encampment, Castro was regularly performing educational outreach, advising farmworkers of their labor and immigration rights. He has also been providing them personal protective equipment during his early-morning efforts in Calexico.
He was moved to establish the encampment after listening to farmworkers repeated complaints about the harried work and living schedules they must adopt to seek work in agricultural fields stateside.
“I didn’t ask for permission,” Castro said, referring to the encampment. “I seen an emergency.”
Since its creation, the encampment has housed one to three farmworkers a night, Castro said. They typically arrive about 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., in time to be served a meal and hot chocolate.
Those who use the site are provided with a sleeping bag and blankets, socks, gloves, bottled water, sweatpants, sweatshirt, jacket and hand sanitizer, Castro said. The items were made available by the generous donation of local nonprofits Our Roots Multicultural Center and Comite Civico del Valle, to name a few.
CHIRLA has publicized the site’s existence on its Facebook page, “CHIRLA Imperial Valley,” as well as on another popular Facebook group page, “Chisme filero,” that serves as a message board for the region’s farmworkers.
“We are providing essential services for essential workers,” Castro said. “They are the most vulnerable and neglected.”
Calexico police had responded to the site the first night of the camp’s establishment and indicated the department would be available for assistance, if any was needed, said Ureña.
“They’re treating it like any other (homeless) encampment in the city,” he said.
Authorities in California and eight other states are prohibited from dismantling homeless encampments on public property if no other shelter is available, following a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Ureña further added that he is working with fellow council member Javier Moreno to soon convene a council meeting where the city can discuss the possibility of establishing an alternative site where transitional housing can be available for both migrant workers and homeless individuals who are unemployed.
The existing encampment would then be moved to the hoped-for site, which would also include showers, restrooms, and wraparound services, Ureña said.
Were the transitional housing site to be established, Ureña said he would then turn his attention to addressing the issues related to farmworkers often using the city’s downtown streets and alleys as “open-air restrooms.”
Currently, there is a portable restroom at the site of the encampment, primarily to serve the construction workers employed at a project at the southwest corner of Andrade Avenue and First Street.
Plans call for the rental of a portable restroom to service the encampment’s occupants once the construction project is completed and the portable restroom is removed, Ureña said.
There is also a push underway by the activist group Calexico Union Against Corruption requesting that the city open the public restrooms that were closed in response to COVID-19. Some of those restrooms near the downtown area were frequented by farmworkers as they waited for their workday to start.
The initiative is separate from CHIRLA’s effort and Ureña’s proposal for transitional housing but is part of a larger plan to have the city be more receptive to the needs and concerns of farmworkers, Ureña said.
For her part, Romo said she has proposed that the council examine the possibility of having farm-labor contractors establish a shelter for the farmworkers that the contractors transport to and from Calexico to the region’s agricultural fields.
“It can be done,” Romo said. “And it shouldn’t even be debated.”