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No Panacea but May Save Lives : Freeway fence could keep immigrants from danger, but problems remain

Trying to imagine how successful a fence will be in discouraging immigrants from running across a freeway is itself a dash into the dark. What’s clear is that more must be done to stop the slaughter on Interstate 5 in the vicinity of the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in the Camp Pendleton area. Since 1987, 38 people, mostly undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have been killed, and many more injured, trying to traverse the freeway to avoid the checkpoint.

Caltrans last week announced that the $3-million fence would extend along an 8-mile stretch of the interstate. The fence may not be a satisfactory permanent solution, but it could be a short-term one. That can buy time for a comprehensive look at problems associated with the checkpoint, even as a costly redesign and relocation of the facility get under way.

Caltrans talks about the fence as if it will be around awhile, but the design doeslend itself to experimentation. The top will be similar to chain-link fencing, and can be recycled to some other purpose if the barrier doesn’t work. The bottom three feet--metal rails attached to wooden posts--will function as a center divider to prevent cars from crossing into oncoming traffic, which the agency says is needed anyway.

Critics understandably worry that immigrants simply will be trapped on the median strip when unable to clear the fence, and thus be subjected to the same or increased danger. Caltrans acknowledges it doesn’t yet have answers for how the California Highway Patrol might get to those trapped along the fence, or for how emergency vehicles now responding out of San Clemente will get across the interstate. It says there probably will be places for such vehicles to traverse, but can’t say how it will prevent these openings from themselves becoming immigrant crossing places.

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Also, everyone agrees that resourceful immigrants will take different routes. Caltrans is prepared to declare victory if that happens, on the theory that nothing can be worse than the current freeway crossings. Caltrans is probably right on the bottom line: If the fence saves lives and dissuades those who are not able-bodied from even trying to cross, it will be worthwhile.

Eventually, the overall merits of the checkpoint concept, as well as attendant safety issues related to crossings and high-speed chases, should be reevaluated.


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