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Border Patrol Checkpoint to Undergo Fierce Scrutiny : Politics: Congressional critics question role the facility just south of O.C. plays in stemming illegal immigration.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It opened in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was President and a slugger named Babe Ruth was in his prime with the New York Yankees. Seventy years later, illegal immigration has never been a bigger issue in California, but many say the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint just south of San Clemente has outlived its usefulness and ought to be closed.

Congressional forces on both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) and Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego), openly question the checkpoint’s role. And they promise that, when Capitol Hill begins considering a new federal budget Oct. 1, the future of the checkpoint will come under its fiercest scrutiny ever.

Packard, in fact, plans an all-out lobbying effort in South County, which encompasses much of his sprawling district. His first public appearances are scheduled Thursday, when aides say he will preach in earnest the philosophy that all Border Patrol efforts should be redirected to the U.S.-Mexico border itself.

He sees no use for a checkpoint that’s long been a familiar sight on Interstate 5, three miles south of San Clemente and 66 miles north of the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, where the Border Patrol is waging a frustrating battle to stem illegal immigration.

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Says Packard: “I am not convinced that it is the best use of taxpayer dollars to fund a checkpoint miles from the International Border, which does not operate round-the-clock, causes severe traffic jams and is the site where high-speed chases of illegals often originate.”

A growing chorus of congressional representatives and civic officials in Orange and San Diego counties favor redeploying the checkpoint’s 100 Border Patrol agents to the border. That’s a shift in thinking that appears to have strong backing within the Clinton Administration, judging by recent comments from Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a Clinton appointee.

But officials for the Border Patrol say the checkpoint is vital to the agency’s efforts. Another inland checkpoint is on Interstate 15 south of Temecula.

“We’re very happy with both the idea and the reality of the (inland) checkpoints, and I can tell you right now, they’re not about to close--despite what a few of our congressmen keep telling us,” said Border Patrol spokesman Bryant Brazeley. “The checkpoint will not close. It’s too vital to our operations. In fact, I’d call it essential to our operations.”

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Nevertheless, efforts to close the checkpoint by transferring agents to the border appear to be gaining momentum.

Earlier this year, Meissner told The Times that if beefed-up efforts at the border are successful, by next year, “we will have to look again at whether those checkpoints really make sense.”

Already shelved is a proposed $30-million plan, first submitted during the Carter Administration, to build a new and expanded checkpoint. It called for a 16-lane, 15-acre site three miles south of the present facility, near the Horno Canyon area next to the Camp Pendleton Marine base.

In a recent appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, Meissner said the INS has no plans of ever building an expanded checkpoint.

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Congressional and governmental sources say Meissner and U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno want to employ agents more effectively--which means re-evaluating and possibly closing the checkpoints.

Illustrating the change in policy, Packard said funding for the checkpoint expansion was recently shifted to the border, where Reno found bipartisan backing to add 400 new agents--a 40% increase--and install technological improvements, primarily lighting and telecommunications to boost the enforcement effort. Rep. Schenk has proposed closing both the San Clemente and Temecula checkpoints and transferring their combined 173 agents to the border.

The push for an El Paso, Tex.-like blockade--which concentrates all Border Patrol efforts at the U.S.-Mexico boundary, and which critics in that region have hailed as a stunning success--has only intensified the growing criticism of California’s inland checkpoints, according to Packard and others. Reno said last year that she’s considering such a strategy in San Diego.

These days, the San Clemente checkpoint--long disliked by commuters who are often backed up in traffic for miles--appears to have few fans, other than officials for the Border Patrol who continue to call it a valuable “secondary” deterrent to illegal migration and smuggled drugs.

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In recent years, the checkpoint has come under attack from what critics say is a host of social and economic ills.

Humanitarians cite the high number of pedestrians who have been struck by vehicles and killed while running across the freeway to evade the checkpoint; 15 died in 1990 alone.

Civic leaders and politicians in South County say the impact on the region’s law enforcement and trauma-care systems has been enormous, whether from high-speed chases of cars carrying illegal immigrants or patients being treated in emergency rooms, in which case taxpayers often pay the bill.

In the cities of Oceanside and Carlsbad, civic leaders cite the growing influx of illegal immigrants who continue to settle in those areas, partly out of fear of challenging the checkpoint farther north.

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And organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union say the checkpoint ought to be abolished because it violates the 4th Amendment, which protects U.S. citizens against unlawful search and seizure.

Jordan Budd, staff counsel for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties--and a frequent critic of the Border Patrol’s operations in San Clemente--says the checkpoint’s modus operandi is racist and unethical.

However, U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating to 1976 have upheld the government’s right to stop people and vehicles for immigration- and drug-related questioning if agents suspect illegal activity.

Budd says the agency tends to stop only drivers or passengers who “look Latino” or who “fit the profile” of a drug smuggler. He cited the case of an unidentified clinical psychologist who commutes from his home in Carlsbad to the Orange County Mental Health Department and who recently asked the ACLU for legal assistance.

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After moving to San Diego County in late 1992, the man was stopped every day for almost a year, Budd said, often being told to report to a secondary holding unit, where he was searched and sometimes made to wait for half an hour before being dismissed.

“Finally, they told him they were stopping him because he ‘fit the profile,’ saying, ‘You have a ponytail and drive an old car.’ He said, ‘But I wear a business suit every day.’ They said, ‘That fits the profile too, because it looks like you’re trying not to fit the profile.’

“This went on every day for about a year, and then last October, it finally stopped,” said Budd. “Coincidentally, the man’s car broke down, and he had to buy a new one. And since he bought the new car, they haven’t stopped him a single time.”

Officials for the Border Patrol declined to respond to Budd’s charges.

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Claudia Smith, regional counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance, which works exclusively with migrant laborers, said her agency recently filed a formal complaint against agents at the checkpoint over what she called “the harassment and abuse” of two Guatemalans whom she says were legally seeking political asylum.

“They had to sleep on cold, tile floors (at the checkpoint) without a blanket and were not given food for almost 24 hours,” she said. “In fact, they were given nothing but water, and they had to get that out of the bathroom. I’m not contesting their detention (by Border Patrol agents). Technically, they could do it--but I’m furious about the abuse.”

Border Patrol officials also declined to respond to Smith’s allegations.

Scott Diehl, the mayor of San Clemente, argues that the concept of an inland immigration inspection center is outdated.

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“To say that you need a ‘secondary’ line of defense (against illegal immigration and drug smuggling) is like saying that your first defense is hopelessly inadequate,” said Diehl, who contends that the checkpoint places a growing burden on both law enforcement and medical care in San Clemente, where two people have lost their lives in high-speed chases and numerous others have been injured, particularly in the last 10 years.

Border Patrol officials revised their chase policy after a June, 1992, traffic accident in Temecula, in which six people were killed during a high-speed pursuit--an illegal immigrant, a father driving his son to school and four students, including the son who died with his father.

Until the chases stop, Diehl said, innocent people remain at risk. “I’m in favor of taking all the money you spend at the inland checkpoints,” he added, “and putting it at the border, which ought to be your line of defense--period.”

Even INS officials say the checkpoints in San Clemente and Temecula combined account for only 10% of the apprehensions in the entire San Diego sector, with all others coming at the ports of entry. A letter to Rep. Schenk from Ralph B. Thomas, acting director of congressional and public affairs for the INS, offered the following figures:

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* “Alien apprehensions” in fiscal year 1992--San Clemente, 44,182; Temecula, 20,780.

* “Narcotics seizures"--San Clemente, 353 cases; Temecula, 183 cases.

* “Currency seizures"--San Clemente, $713,983; Temecula, $41,287.

* “Firearms seizures"--San Clemente, 45; Temecula, 16.

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Thomas notes that the San Clemente checkpoint employs 100 full-time agents who operate 75 vehicles. The checkpoint’s annual operating expenses are listed at $7.2 million.

However, Thomas defends the need for the checkpoint, saying its “primary function” is that of a “traffic check,” which examines “occupants or vehicles . . . as to their right to be or remain in the United States.”

Without traffic checks, he writes, “our ability to prevent the penetration of illegal aliens into the interior of the country would be greatly hampered.”

Budd of the ACLU says the entire concept of “secondary” checkpoints ought to be re-examined, regardless of how effective, or ineffective the law enforcement community feels they are. He said the question ought to be:

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Are they constitutional?

“The whole notion of the San Clemente Checkpoint is that you can suspend otherwise applicable constitutional protections--inside your own country, no less--for the greater good of law enforcement. But that’s far too high a price to pay, and it doesn’t even consider whether it’s ‘effective,’ ” Budd said. “We’ll leave that argument to somebody else. If it’s failing in that area too, then it really ought to be looked at.

“Maybe the question should be: Who really benefits, and how?”


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