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Hit-Run Driver Kills Migrant, 14 : Border: A car swerves into freeway lanes closed to protect migrants, kills the boy and injures his brother.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 14-year-old boy waiting to cross Interstate 5 with his family near the U.S.-Mexico border was killed and his brother seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver who swerved into lanes closed off by state officials to protect the safety of illegal migrants.

The county medical examiner’s office said Demetria Pantoja-Reyes died in the collision at about 2:45 a.m. after he was hit by a 1985 or 1986 red Pontiac station wagon going south on I-5 in San Ysidro, about a mile north of the border.

His brother, Juan Pantoja-Reyes, 28, underwent surgery Thursday at UCSD Medical Center, for a spinal fracture and two broken legs. A hospital supervisor refused to give his condition.

The boys’ father, Juan, watched the accident and visited his son at the hospital. He told KGTV-Channel 10 that he and his three sons had crossed the border into San Diego to seek jobs picking apples in Washington state. The family is from Guanajuato, Mexico.

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“I’m seeing one of my sons and there’s my other son, both hit by this vehicle,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. This is my first time here, and something like this happens.”

Authorities said that, after the two were hit, the car struck a center divider and kept going south on I-5. A California Highway Patrol spokesman said the car has front-end damage on the left side and asked anyone with information to call 296-6661.

Pantoja-Reyes was the second to die since the California Department of Transportation partitioned off four lanes last month to reduce the number of injuries and deaths among illegal immigrants who try to cross the freeway. Despite the closed lanes, a woman in her mid-30s was struck and killed on Aug. 21 as she tried to run across the freeway.

It was hoped that, by reducing eight lanes to four, and cordoning off the rest with concrete barriers, traffic would slow and immigrants could pass across the lanes without harm. More than 100 people have been killed near the border since 1987. Caltrans officials say deaths are now down since the $88,000, six-month pilot program was started.

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But, two days ago, citing rising crime in the closed lanes, law enforcement officials asked that the lanes be reopened. Civic activists added their concern that Caltrans was helping to provide a safe haven for illegal aliens. Business owners said the congregation of immigrants in the lanes has discouraged customers from shopping in San Ysidro.

U.S. Border Patrol agents have kept to a self-imposed policy of not arresting aliens who gather in the lanes.

State transportation officials collected comments during three days of meetings in San Ysidro and plan to pass recommendations on the future of the closed lanes to superiors.

On Thursday, the California Highway Patrol renewed its call to reopen the lanes, saying illegal immigrants will continue to be hit. A Caltrans spokeswoman, Olga Gonzalez, said the agency would have no comment.

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From his hospital bed, Juan Pantoja-Reyes told Channel 10 that he believed the driver of the car who hit him did so on purpose.

“Everything happened so suddenly,” he said. “All I saw was that the car was driving down the freeway and, on purpose, he turned the vehicle, swerving and hitting us. We didn’t have a chance to jump over the other side of the median. It happened suddenly, and the vehicle was going at such a high speed.”

The family, stranded in the United States while Pantoja-Reyes is in the hospital, have asked for donations that can be made to the Mexican Consulate of San Diego to pay the medical bills.


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