New Mexico town agrees to pay $260,000 to Mexican workers after selectively enforcing zoning law

Officials from Hatch, a small town in New Mexico about 40 miles northwest of Las Cruces, have agreed to pay $260,000 to 11 Mexican families whose members work as migrant farm hands near the town. The U.S. Department of Justice and the plaintiffs in a private lawsuit alleged that Hatch's government had violated the Fair Housing Act by selectively enforcing a zoning ordinan ce that bars mobile homes. The December settlement includes compensatory damages, civil penalties, and attorneys' fees.

A Justice Department investigation found that Hatch's zoning ordinance barring mobile homes was enforced only in areas of the town that were primarily populated by the legal resident alien farm workers. In fact, the Justice Department said, the o rdinance was only enforced along one particular street where many of the Mexican farm workers lived.

Because of this selective enforcement, several Mexican families were forced to move away from Hatch and into substandard areas on the outskirts of the town known as colonias. The colonias often consisted of nothing more than collections of small wooden shacks. The Justice Department said that these colonias had very limited or no drinkable water, no wastewater or sewage systems, no roads leading in or out, and no drainage control systems.

A temporary restraining order was granted in May 1994 to prevent the town from enforcing the zoning ordinance during the litigation of a private lawsuit filed by the farm workers. The Justice Department filed suit in June 1995. The settlement ag reed to in December resolves both cases.

In addition to the monetary settlement, the consent decree signed by town officials also requires them to allow any families displaced by the zoning ordinance to return to Hatch. Hatch's officials also agr eed to design an integration plan for the town, including a study of ways to ensure affordable and safe housing opportunities for its low-income residents. During the course of the litigation, Hatch elected to change its zoning laws, allowing mobile home s throughout most of the town.

According to the Associated Press, each family will receive about $16,000 after attorneys' fees are paid. That amounts to about four times their annual income.

"We cannot allow a town to use their zoning authority to deny decent housing to a group of people because of their national origin," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick. The Justice Department also stressed that all of the farm workers involved in the suit were legal residents of the United States.