A proposal to build a fence along the median of Interstate 5 to prevent more deaths of illegal immigrants near the Camp Pendleton border checkpoint is “a waste of money,” community leaders told state transportation officials Tuesday.
A recent study by California State University, Fullerton, researchers commissioned by the state concluded that construction of a fence along 8 miles of the freeway north of Oceanside is the best way to prevent accidents that have claimed more than 100 lives in five years on highways from the border to San Clemente.
“I would say it’s a waste of money,” said Evelyn Colon Becktell, chairwoman of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, who attended the California Department of Transportation meeting at the Fullerton Public Library. “When they put up more lights (along the highway), the immigrants went farther up the highway, where there were no lights. The same thing is going to happen with the wall. They’re going to go farther up along I-5, and, one way or another, they’re going to get killed.”
Caltrans officials are hosting a series of meetings to expand public awareness about the immigrant deaths. They told the small gathering that they are working with officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol and the California Highway Patrol to find a solution for a problem that stems from the tens of thousands of immigrants streaming in from Latin America every year.
Many of the deaths occur near the Border Patrol checkpoint near San Onofre.
Immigrants making their way north by vehicle are often told by their “coyotes,” or smugglers, to get out of the car and walk several miles north past the checkpoint to avoid detection by Border Patrol agents. The hike, often taken in the dark of night, involves crossing the north- and southbound lanes of fast-moving traffic.
“As the smuggling process becomes more sophisticated, we are seeing more problems at San Onofre,” said Steve Saville of Caltrans’ public affairs office.
He and Jim Larson, another Caltrans spokesman, told those at the meeting that the wall is only a part of their campaign to prevent more deaths. They also are trying to spread the word among immigrants to be careful along the highways.
One Caltrans flyer that has been handed out at hiring halls, community centers and churches says, “For the love of God do not cross the freeway.”
“It’s difficult to say what’s working, but the word is starting to get out,” Larson said, noting that there has not been a death for several months near San Onofre.
Researchers at Cal State Fullerton, nearing the end of a yearlong study, polled 100 policy-makers, academics, immigrant advocates and others who have followed the issue. They found that 71% of all respondents stated that a barrier would be a “very effective” or “extremely effective” device to prevent the deaths.
But those at the Orange County meeting told Caltrans officials that getting the word out about the dangers, rather than erecting a barrier, is a better solution.
“These people (coyotes) have no soul,” said Santa Ana Police Officer Jose Vargas, who is in charge of Hispanic Affairs at the department. “They’re just going to tell their people to bail out anyway. It might keep the women or children from doing it, but many people will still hike 8 miles rather than three to get around it.”
Larson said officials are still in the midst of hearing from more people before they make a final decision on whether to build the wall.
And, even if they do decide to build it, he said, “and we see that it’s more of a problem, causing more deaths, we’ll take it out.”