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‘Someone decided to play ICE.’ Tulare County families report threats, wrongful evictions

Linnell Farm Labor Center.jpg
The Woodville Farm Labor Center is located west of the City of Porterville in Tulare County, Calif.

FARMERSVILLE, Calif. — The Tulare County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners has launched an investigation into allegations that staff members of the Tulare County Housing Authority intimidated residents of farm labor housing centers and wrongfully pushed out families.

According to advocacy groups, around 50 families or more could have been targets of intimidation and eviction that began in 2021 but wasn’t publicly reported until last month. The groups allege some of those families were threatened with calls to immigration officials if they did not comply.

KVPR reached out to Housing Authority officials for comment but did not immediately hear back.

The Housing Authority’s board of commissioners said it was granted special permission by the United States Department of Agriculture, which provides federal funding for farmworker housing, to allow evicted residents to return to their homes without needing to prove immigration status for at least a year.

Officials said the special permission from the USDA could help resolve housing insecurity and mistrust created by the removal of residents. KVPR also reached out to the USDA for comment, but has not heard back yet.

Most of the concerns arose from the Linnell Farm Labor Center in Farmersville and the Woodville Farm Labor Center west of Porterville, which house some of the county’s estimated 400 units for non-migratory farmworking families. These rental facilities, commonly known as “housing camps,” are scattered across the state and act as stable housing for low-income farmworking families who don’t typically move around for work.

Tulare County Supervisor Larry Micari, whose district represents one of the farm housing centers, said a woman at one of the housing centers was living in her van with her three children after being kicked out of her home. Elderly residents and schoolchildren were also displaced, he added.

Micari said he was alerted to the evictions and reports of mistreatment by local nonprofit groups. Some families who were evicted have lived at their homes for decades, according to the groups.

“The families are just terrorized. They're terrorized,” Micari said. “I was never a migrant and I was never in fear of deportation. These people live that every day. And to tell them ‘you're going to get out in three days' or ‘I'm going to call the border patrol’ or ‘I'm going to call the deputies to come deport you,’ that's pretty disgusting.”

Residents, afraid at first, opened up about evictions

Initially, many families were keeping the evictions silent out of fear of jeopardizing any immigration cases or for fear of being reported to authorities. But advocacy groups like the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance and the Unidad Popular Benito Juarez encouraged them to speak out.

Reyna Rodriguez, who works in public relations with another organization, Proteus, Inc., told KVPR she began to learn of the situation after a woman attending a community event at one of the housing centers asked if her organization was offering financial assistance for housing.

The woman needed to move out in three days, Rodriguez remembers her saying.

“What do you mean you have three days to move?” Rodriguez remembers thinking.

Rodriguez said people at the farm housing centers told her they were taking the eviction notices seriously after a new site manager at one of the housing centers began questioning and discrediting the immigration status of residents. Rodriguez likened the situation to being as if “someone decided to play ICE” and go after residents.

Some families who left the housing centers were staying in rooms at homes of friends or relatives, according to Rodriguez. She said residents want to push for changes at the housing centers to prevent a similar incident in the future.

housing authority meeting.jpg
Supervisor Larry Micari
Residents attend a meeting of the Tulare County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners on Feb. 24, 2023.

Last week, several families turned out to a special meeting by the Housing Authority board of commissioners. Many shared stories of intimidation and mistreatment by Housing Authority staff. Some residents spoke through a Spanish translator.

The board meeting, broadcast by one attendee on Facebook, at one point turned emotional, with residents and at least one commissioner crying and wiping away tears after testimonies. On top of intimidation, residents said their homes needed several repairs that have been neglected.

The special board meeting occurred after other meetings had taken place at the Farmersville housing center. At one of those meetings, Supervisor Micari invited a captain with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, who told residents the manner in which they described being evicted was illegal.

The advocacy groups helping the families alleged residents at the farm labor centers were coerced into signing documents admitting their immigration status before being evicted.

They also argue tenants were given three days to leave their homes – instead of the usual 30 to 90-day notices allowed under law.

Mari Perez-Ruiz, executive director of the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance, provided additional examples of what she considered inhumane treatment by Housing Authority staff. She said rules suddenly got stricter at the housing centers after new Housing Authority staff came on. Children were not allowed to play outside, and families were told they could be evicted like their neighbors had been, Perez-Ruiz

“Just because these are farmworkers doesn’t mean they don’t have rights,” Perez-Ruiz said in Spanish. “Their rights were violated.”

Perez-Ruiz and other advocates told KVPR that tenants may not have been familiar with the rules around housing and took the notices as a final decision to vacate their homes over fear of authorities. Eligibility for farm labor housing, which gets federal funding, includes that an applicant or head of household must be a citizen or legal resident as well as meet income requirements.

The county’s Housing Authority notes on their website that each year it verifies the income and size of the family during regular inspections. State housing laws allow for three-day notices to be given over failed rent payments, which is the first step in an eviction process.

But the evictions at the farm housing centers did not seem to stem from failed rent payments, according to advocacy groups and what the supervisor was told.

Now, the advocacy groups, which have helped tenants speak out, are calling for changes at the housing centers. They’ve demanded the resignation of the director of the Tulare County Housing Authority as well as an internal investigation within the Housing Authority. Perez-Ruiz questioned why evictions were approved under the circumstances outlined by residents, who had kept silent. KVPR left multiple voicemails to Housing Authority staff but did not get a response by deadline.

'How long has this been going on?'

The reports took county officials by surprise. John Hess, chair of the Tulare County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, said the board is seeking many answers after learning of the allegations.

“That's going to be the question we ask over the next few weeks,” Hess said. “Who knew what? When did they know? What direction was given? How long has this been going on?”

Hess could not answer who may have been behind the alleged intimidation of residents, citing the ongoing Housing Authority investigation.

However, the advocacy groups say management personnel at the Farmersville and Woodville farm housing centers have created a hostile living environment. In letters to the commissioners, the advocacy organizations asked for management personnel to be removed from the housing centers in order to put families at ease.

Some allegations include tenants with documentation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — an Obama-era rule granting work permits to some undocumented immigrants — being told their Social Security numbers were not valid and allegedly being denied housing contracts.

Those claims are outlined in letters by the two advocacy organizations which were later submitted to the Housing Authority board. The letters cited resident concerns over unlawful evictions, hostile living environments and entrance into homes without proper notification by management.

In one instance reported by the advocacy groups, maintenance personnel at one of the housing centers is accused of entering a home and watching a tenant sleep. In another case, the group reports, a tenant was showering when a management official entered their home.

Hess apologized to the families who sat and stood in the meeting room last week.

He told KVPR the board was going to work to regain the trust of the community during the investigation. In his more than 10 years serving on the board, he had never heard of a similar incident. The Housing Authority board is planning to hold its next meeting at the Linnell Camp in Farmersville to continue meeting with residents.

“Credibility and reputation are priceless things,” Hess said. “While it's going to take time to rebuild that credibility and reputation, I would certainly hope that the listening that the board has been attentive to the last week and a half, and then the actions that immediately addressed the urgent need to restore folks back to their homes, is a good faith gesture to show this has been taken seriously.”

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.