The controversial Border Patrol checkpoint near here--a fixture in Southern California since 1924--became the first casualty of sweeping changes in immigration policy Thursday, when the Clinton Administration took the unprecedented step of temporarily closing the facility.
INS Commissioner Doris Meissner called the closure, which takes place officially Saturday, part of a five-month test to assess whether redeploying 93 Border Patrol officers from the checkpoint to the California-Mexico border can significantly reduce illegal crossings.
Named Operation Gatekeeper, the plan would also reallocate 47 officers from the inland checkpoint along Interstate 15 near Temecula to the international border during the same period.
Meissner said in Washington that she and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno “have stated publicly that we are trying new tactics to bring illegal immigration under control. This San Clemente checkpoint test is an example of something we have not tried before.”
In Orange and San Diego counties, civic officials and civil libertarians alike hailed the decision, calling the checkpoint just south of San Clemente a threat to public safety. Frequently over the years, illegal immigrants have been killed or injured while dashing across the freeway to avoid the checkpoint, and the Border Patrol has engaged in many high-speed chases through nearby communities.
Officials for the American Civil Liberties Union said the criteria for detecting illegal immigrants had been reduced to little more, in the words of spokesman Jordan Budd, “than seeing who has brown skin or drives an old car.”
Dr. Thomas Shaver, a Mission Viejo surgeon and head of the Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center trauma unit, applauded the closure as an important and long-overdue step.
“It’s a fact that there was loss of life because of the checkpoint and serious injuries--even injuries to many people who were not involved--for what is a nonviolent crime,” Shaver said. “There is simply no way to justify having that checkpoint this far north (66 miles from the border). Immigration is such a complex problem, of a magnitude we will probably never understand, that it will take a multitude of solutions.”
The four-lane facility, through which more than 122,000 automobiles pass every day en route to Orange County via northbound Interstate 5, has drawn bitter attacks in recent years from both conservative and liberal politicians who cited its high operational costs--more than $7 million annually--and openly questioned its effectiveness.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) and Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego) have advocated closing the checkpoint in favor of placing an El Paso, Tex.-like blockade along the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Such a Border Patrol tactic has proved particularly effective in the Rio Grande River area in Texas.
Officials for the California Highway Patrol said Thursday that closing the checkpoint should make their jobs easier, citing the high number of pedestrian fatalities. In 1990 alone, 15 people were killed and 9 seriously injured while running across Interstate 5, including an 8-year-old boy who was clutching his mother’s dress when hit by a passing car. A $458,000, seven-mile-long fence was erected last year in an effort to discourage people from crossing the freeway. No fatalities have occurred since the fence went up.
Increasingly in recent years, the San Clemente checkpoint has been a sore point in both south Orange County and north San Diego County, albeit for different reasons.
Scott Diehl, the mayor of San Clemente, has complained bitterly about the fiscal and emotional toll of high-speed chases that on occasion have burdened area emergency rooms and, in Diehl’s opinion, placed everyday motorists at risk.
In the northern San Diego County communities of Oceanside and Carlsbad, city officials blame the checkpoint for a sharp increase in the illegal immigrant population of both cities.
San Clemente Councilwoman Candace Haggard said Thursday that she and other city officials have never liked the checkpoint.
“I know that (Border Patrol agents) feel they get a lot of people at that checkpoint, but that has never made sense to me,” Haggard said. “Having more people at the border makes a lot more sense.”
Border Patrol agents say the checkpoint has been a valuable deterrent in stopping illegal immigration, citing a record 75,042 arrests in 1990 as evidence of its effectiveness.
More than 46,000 illegal immigrants were arrested at the checkpoint in the 1993 fiscal year, officials said Thursday, while during the same period agents seized 7,552 pounds of marijuana, 63 1/2 pounds of cocaine and 9 1/2 pounds of heroin.
“Traffic check operations are an essential part of the Border Patrol’s mission to prevent the illegal entry and smuggling of aliens into the United States,” U.S. Justice Department official Ralph B. Thomas said recently in a written plea to Congress to keep the San Clemente and Temecula checkpoints open. “Without them, our ability to prevent the penetration of illegal aliens into the interior of the country would be greatly hampered.”
But critics say the risks of operating the San Clemente checkpoint far outweigh its usefulness.
Dana Point Mayor Judy Curreri seconded the views of San Clemente officials and Shaver, saying the impact of the checkpoint often stretched into her jurisdiction.
“It is a scare for neighboring communities,” Curreri said.
Budd of the ACLU has frequently attacked the checkpoint, calling the methods of its agents racist. He cited a case, investigated by the ACLU, in which Anthony Brailow, an Orange County clinical psychologist commuting to work from his home in Oceanside, was harassed every day for almost a year by agents who suspected him of being a smuggler.
Brailow said Thursday that, from October, 1992, to August, 1993--when he purchased a new car--he was stopped every day while driving to work in his “late ‘80s model Chrysler.”
“They said I fit the profile of a dark, Hispanic looking man dressed up as a businessman,” Brailow said. “They said, ‘Smugglers drive your type of car and dress up like you do.’ I tried giving them my (Orange County Health Care Agency) ID card, or getting a letter from my employers, but none of it worked--until I bought a new car. I absolutely felt like my civil rights had been violated, and of course, none of their searches ever led to anything.”
Opening: In 1924 during President Calvin Coolidge’s Administration. Relocated in 1970 when Interstate 5 was built.
Activity: 122,000 vehicles daily. Busiest Border Patrol checkpoint not on an international border.
Pedestrian accidents: 15 killed, nine seriously injured in 1990.
Most arrests: 75,042 in 1990.
Most apprehensions: 46,989 suspected illegal immigrants in 1993.
Drug seizures: 7,552 pounds of marijuana, 63 1/2 pounds of cocaine and 9 1/2 pounds of heroin in 1993.
Personnel: 100 full-time agents, 75-vehicle fleet. Staff will relocate to International Border in San Ysidro.
Operating costs: $7.2 million (1993 fiscal year).
Source: Immigration and Naturalization Service