The Opposition Grows to New I-5 Checkpoint : Migrants: Some North County officials say the proposed $33-million checkpoint in Camp Pendleton would only add to the area’s illegal alien problem.
The first stirring of political opposition to a $33-million, 16-lane border checkpoint on Interstate 5 at Camp Pendleton is quietly rippling through North County.
Several elected leaders, including County Supervisor John MacDonald, Carlsbad Mayor Bud Lewis and Vista Mayor Gloria McClellan, are either flatly against the new checkpoint or have doubts about it.
With North County flooded by thousands of illegal migrants, the officials have concerns that the checkpoint, which would be built in 1992 if Congress approves funding, might make the local migrant situation worse.
Lewis will meet soon with Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) to press his pleas that the federal government junk the checkpoint and marshal forces at the U.S.-Mexico border to stop undocumented migrants there.
“That thing should be down at the border, that’s where the problem is,” said Lewis, who contends that a North County checkpoint only serves to trap migrants who can’t pass farther north to Orange County and Los Angeles.
In a letter to Packard, Lewis said, “I do not feel that a new border checkpoint would benefit North County. Rather it would intensify the problem by making this area the stopping point for those who cannot cross the checkpoint. We do not need the additional problems of a larger migrant population.”
While Lewis has been complaining to Washington, MacDonald, whose sprawling 5th District includes nearly all of North County, has created a special 12-member group to advise him on Latino issues.
One of the first things MacDonald asked members to do at their inaugural meeting this month is study the checkpoint and return with a recommendation.
“I support investigating the possibility of taking that checkpoint out,” said MacDonald, who questions the effectiveness of the existing Border Patrol checkpoint at San Onofre, just south of the Orange County line.
“Many people go through Camp Pendleton to evade the checkpoint,” said the county supervisor.
Ironically, one reason for building an expanded checkpoint on Camp Pendleton land was to end the controversy over the facility at San Onofre. For years, San Clemente and other cities north of the checkpoint have complained about dangerous high-speed chases as authorities pursued suspects through their communities.
When the Bush Administration put $10 million in the proposed federal budget for fiscal 1991, the reason was partly to calm Orange County’s fears by putting a new checkpoint in more open area several miles south.
The Administration also wanted an expanded checkpoint that would stem the migrant problem and possibly slow the flow of illicit drugs coming into the country.
It’s expected that the Administration will seek an additional $23 million appropriation for fiscal 1992 to complete the new checkpoint, near the Las Pulgas Road exit. At that point, I-5 will be widened into 16 lanes, encroaching onto Camp Pendleton for additional space, and a row of inspection booths will be installed.
The checkpoint would be manned by 150 Border Patrol agents, double the staffing at the San Onofre facility.
There has been little publicity about the new checkpoint, and it is only slowly becoming an issue to some North County elected officials.
In Vista, a city less troubled by migrants than Carlsbad or Encinitas, Mayor McClellan objects to the checkpoint chiefly because to her it represents another effort by Orange County to solve its problems at San Diego County’s expense.
“Why should we be worrying about the problems in Orange County and take the pain here?” she asked. “It seems every time Orange County doesn’t want something, we get it. It gets a little old.”
But MacDonald began having doubts about the checkpoint because of the high number of migrants being injured or killed as they dart across the freeway while trying to work their way around the checkpoint.
“One of the things that brought this to our attention was the frequent deaths and the accidents that occur as (drivers) dodge those incidents,” MacDonald said.
According to the California Highway Patrol, so far this year five collisions in the checkpoint area have claimed the lives of five pedestrians and injured a sixth. In 1989, the CHP reported that 16 accidents in the area killed 13 pedestrians and hurt three others. Most victims are believed to be migrants.
While MacDonald is awaiting a recommendation from his advisory group, there is clearly some sentiment among members that the new checkpoint might only compound the migrant problem.
George Lopez of Oceanside, a group member and executive director of a North County job training organization for low-income people, said when he talks to people about the checkpoint, “in general, 95% of the time, I get the comment back, ‘What good does it do in North County?’ ”
He believes the checkpoint accomplishes little except to bottle up undocumented migrants in North County. “I’d be comfortable sitting up here in North County if I didn’t have to cross that checkpoint,” Lopez said.
Lewis hopes that meeting with Packard and showing the congressman where Carlsbad’s migrants sleep in canyon camps and wait for work during the day will change federal thinking about the checkpoint.
After the meeting, Lewis intends to openly seek support from other elected leaders in North County to oppose the checkpoint. He wants “simply to bombard our federal representatives how we feel about it,” Lewis said.
Lewis may have his work cut out.
Besides having modest influence over the federal budget, Lewis will have a difficult time convincing Packard and Border Patrol officials to abandon the new checkpoint.
Packard said he’s willing to discuss the checkpoint with Lewis, but he considers the facility a critical second line of defense to keep immigrants from passing through San Diego County for other destinations.
“It is important we prevent them from escaping into the rest of the country and lose track of them, so I think (the checkpoint) has to be done,” Packard said.
He agrees with Lewis that the federal government must do more at the international border to stop the flow of migrants, but even so, he insists that the North County checkpoint remain. “I don’t believe opening up the checkpoint is an acceptable solution,” Packard said.
Nor does the Border Patrol yield on the issue, and Ted Swofford, a supervisory agent, pointed to the number of illegal immigrants caught at the existing checkpoint.
From Jan. 1 to May 23, agents detained 29,465 undocumented aliens at the San Onofre facility. Agents also seized 100 vehicles a month and “an awful lot of narcotics,” Swofford said.
He disputes Lewis’ assertion that the checkpoint forces many migrants to stay in North County. “Considering the volume of people we’re catching, I get the feeling the people in Carlsbad and Encinitas would be there whether there’s a checkpoint or not,” Swofford said.
Although there is clearly the beginning of a political dispute over the checkpoint, so far, not everybody is prepared to become partisan.
Mayor Pam Slater of Encinitas, where the City Council has declared a state of emergency because of its migrant problems, said “it would be foolish and irresponsible not to improve” the North County checkpoint.
But she emphasized that the new checkpoint “could exacerbate our problem” unless tough measures also are undertaken at the U.S.-Mexico border.
While Lewis is strident on the issue, some North County politicians hardly think about it. A spokesman for Oceanside Mayor Larry Bagley said, “the mayor just doesn’t have an opinion one way or another on it.”