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Common Council steps in to save migrant worker housing

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A temporary home for migrant workers will stay open after all. Friday ABC 57 learned the South Bend mayor's office ordered the fire chief to put locks on the doors come Monday because of code violations.

It's a move that upset the common council, and Friday council members decided to set the record straight.

Due to the building's age, It does not have a fire sprinkler system. That raised serious safety concerns for Mayor Pete Buttigieg. So, the mayor decided to give the owner a notice that all 190 workers, who live at the former medical facility, had to be out by Monday or else locks would be put on the doors.

"This is basically a human rights issue," said community activist Jesusa Rivera.

"Everybody is due due process, you can't just remove people," said Council Member Oliver Davis.

Paula Sours grew up as a migrant worker. Sours followed the growing seasons of farmers across the country. So, like many she was upset by the actions taken by the city and said it gives a bad impression of migrant workers.

"Migrant worker doesn't mean you are an illegal. A migrant worker is someone that works from state to state," said Sours.

Sours said migrant workers have every right to be here and council members agree. "If we go around the whole city and see who's fire extinguishers and fire sprinklers aren't working and we remove them all in this hot weather, it would be a travesty for the City of South Bend to do that," said Davis.  

Common council members were not happy with the news. They say they knew about the code violations and were even working with the building's owner to correct the issues. "We have different people coming from the building department. They have made a report, the fire department has made a report," said Davis. 

A lawyer in support of the migrant workers said the building's owner has stepped up to comply with a list of requirements handed out by the city -- all with the exception of the fire sprinkler system.

"In fact, before moving people in, they went to the city and asked for permission. They asked for permits," said Felipe Merino. 

It is an effort that council members say is a first of its kind. Previously, workers had to find their own housing. Usually, that became vacant homes with poor living conditions. Sours said an opportunity at a better life helped her family and she just hopes those in the building get the same chance.

"We are hard working people and we love our community and I love our community and we'd love to work together as one," said Sours.

The common council members will still have an opportunity to work with the owner to get the building up to date with code enforcement requirements. That will happen this upcoming Tuesday at 5 p.m., when the common council meets with officials from the city to discuss what happens next.

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