U.S. immigration officials are seeking $10 million to pay for the first-phase construction of a long-projected Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5 south of San Clemente.
The funding request, included as part of the 1991 budget proposal of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, brings the proposal for the $30-million facility one step closer to reality.
The $10 million is a partial request, but approval is still far from guaranteed. Officials also cautioned that, if the first phase is funded, it will not be built and operational for several years.
The $10 million is earmarked for planning, design and initial construction costs associated with the projected 16-lane checkpoint. The facility would replace the existing three-lane checkpoint on Interstate 5 near the San Diego County-Orange County border, at the northwest corner of Camp Pendleton.
The plan for the new facility was unveiled in August, 1986. Since then, funding has been hard to come by in a time of growing federal fiscal austerity.
Officials say the existing checkpoint is inadequate, resulting in cursory inspections and huge traffic backups that have long angered motorists traveling along the principal north-south route from San Diego to Los Angeles.
Compounding problems are Border Patrol manpower shortages that have prompted shutdowns of the facility. San Clemente residents have also complained about chases that begin at the checkpoint and end up on city streets.
The checkpoint is the busiest of more than a dozen on the major routes leading into the interior of the United States from towns and cities along a U.S.-Mexico border of almost 2,000 miles. Officials consider the facilities a key deterrent to unauthorized immigration.
Ever-greater amounts of illegal drugs have also been seized at the checkpoints, which has spurred legislators seeking money for the Interstate 5 facility to emphasize its drug role--a relatively more eye-catching function than keeping out foreigners lacking residence papers.
“The whole spotlight on illegal drugs lately . . . has to help us,” said Mike Eggers, chief of staff in Orange County for Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) and a Dana Point councilman. “This is not just an illegal-alien checkpoint. They find everything from stolen cars to drugs to firearms.”
During peak hours, more than 5,000 vehicles per hour pass through the San Clemente station, officials said.
Agents posted there arrested more than 150 suspected illegal immigrants each day during fiscal 1989, according to government figures. Officers also made 66 major drug seizures, confiscating contraband with an estimated street value of $17.2 million, authorities said.
Built in 1971 to accommodate 30 agents and staff members, the facility now has 133 agents, a Packard aide said.
Before the checkpoint plan advances, an array of congressional committees must approve the $10 million and other details of the INS’s proposed $900-million budget plan. Final approval of the budget is not expected until fall, after a lengthy hearing process, bargaining sessions and other oversight reviews. Thus, construction could probably not begin until sometime in 1991.
Meanwhile, assuming that the $10 million becomes available, the INS would then have to seek $20 million more to complete construction. The facility is not expected to be operational until at least 1992, assuming the money becomes available--a major assumption, considering the competition for federal dollars.
“I don’t think anyone objects to it (the checkpoint) on its merit,” said one congressional staffer in Washington who is familiar with the funding process. “It’ll just come down to a question of how much funding authority we’re allowed, and how it rates in priority with other things.”
The checkpoint is expected to be built near the Las Pulgas Road exit off the northbound lanes of Interstate 5, about five miles south of the existing checkpoint. Unlike the existing checkpoint, which follows the path of the highway, the new configuration would require that motorists fan out into 16 inspection lanes.
In building the checkpoint, authorities have said they plan to use about 15 acres owned by the Marine Corps.