The erection of high barriers along the median of Interstate 5 is the best way to reduce the escalating numbers of accidents involving undocumented immigrant pedestrians in northern San Diego County, a university survey conducted at the behest of the California Department of Transportation has concluded.
The study, conducted by Cal State Fullerton, seems likely to add impetus to the controversial idea of constructing 10- to 12-foot high fences along the center divider of an 8-mile stretch of I-5 just south of the Orange County line.
The concept of the so-called “I-5 Wall” has become an increasingly divisive subject in the border area, pitting the law enforcement agencies that favor the proposal against immigrant advocates who say it will do more harm than good, trapping frightened pedestrians against an impenetrable barrier.
Northbound undocumented immigrants seeking to avoid inspection at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint north of Oceanside regularly traverse the freeway on foot, embarking upon an extremely hazardous trek around the inspection station by way of Camp Pendleton and the San Onofre State Beach.
Since 1987, according to the California Highway Patrol, fast-moving vehicles on the interstate have struck 63 pedestrian immigrants in the area, killing 38 and injuring 25. There have been 22 casualties so far this year--a new record for freeway carnage--including 13 deaths and nine injuries.
Researchers at Cal State Fullerton, which is nearing the end of a yearlong, Caltrans-sponsored study of the issue, found that 71% of all respondents in their survey stated that such a barrier would be a “very effective” or “extremely effective” device. The remaining 29% said a median fence would be ineffective or only moderately useful.
The survey results are expected to influence Caltrans, which is considering the erection of a barrier--most likely a metal fence--along the freeway median.
“We’ll certainly pay attention to these findings in making our determination” on whether to go ahead with the barrier plan, said Jesus M. Garcia, district director in San Diego for Caltrans.
Survey respondents included more than 100 policy-makers, academics, immigrant advocates and others who have followed the issue.
Other ideas favored by those surveyed included a variety of less controversial approaches, such as the improvement of roadway lighting, the installation of signs alerting motorists and pedestrians to the danger and the removal of roadside shrubbery that provides cover to pedestrians.
But the barrier concept, backed by the CHP and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, remains the most provocative alternative.
A decision on the barrier proposal is likely within weeks, said Garcia, who spoke at a San Diego meeting in which the survey findings were unveiled. A public hearing is possible, but has not been scheduled, before the decision is made, Garcia said. Construction of such a fence would probably take two years and cost about $1 million, authorities said, adding that a cement barrier would probably be too expensive.
Supporters of the barrier concept say such obstacles will reduce the likelihood of immigrants attempting to cross the freeway.
“We’re interested in saving lives, and this is the best way to do it,” said Ben Davidian, regional commissioner in Los Angeles for the immigration service.
But immigrant advocates and others have strongly opposed the barrier idea, contending that it could actually increase the carnage by trapping frightened pedestrians on the roadway median. A wall or fence will do little to discourage immigrants who have come that far, opponents argue.
“It will be a great concession for these coyotes (smugglers) to sell wire cutters,” said Lilia Powell, a representative of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Responsibilities.
Gene Begnell, battalion fire chief in San Clemente, said his agency fears that a barrier could hamper life-saving efforts along the freeway by limiting emergency access to both sides of the freeway.
“I really don’t think a 12-foot fence is going to slow these people down,” said Begnell, whose department provides emergency medical response to accident victims along the stretch of I-5 between Oceanside and San Clemente.
Although supporting a freeway median barrier along I-5 in northern San Diego County, law enforcement authorities are not pushing for a similar structure in the immediate border area, which has experienced an even higher number of freeway accidents involving undocumented pedestrians.
A barrier would be less effective near the international boundary, officials say, as immigrants on foot could easily find alternative routes. In contrast, there is only one major public artery--I-5--in the area of the U.S. immigration checkpoint north of Oceanside.
Since 1987, officials say, vehicles have struck 158 immigrant pedestrians along the grid of border-area highways, including I-5, Interstate 805 and California 905. Of those, 87 were killed and 71 were injured.