While politicians are embroiled in a polarized national debate over immigration, an iconic road sign cautioning drivers near the San Diego border to watch for migrants running across the freeway has quietly disappeared.
The “immigrant crossing” signs have become obsolete, said Cathryne Bruce-Johnson, a spokeswoman for Caltrans. The transportation department stopped replacing the signs years ago because it constructed fences along medians to deter people from running across highways.
The last sign, which stood on the side of the 5 Freeway near the San Ysidro border crossing, vanished in September.
“It’s gone,” Bruce-Johnson said. “Caltrans crews did not remove it, so it’s assumed stolen.”
Signs are more often damaged or vandalized than stolen, according to Bruce-Johnson, but when they are taken, there isn’t much Caltrans can do to get them back.
California Highway Patrol Sgt. Dan Kyle said that officers who worked during the years before the fences were added recalled responding weekly to fatal collisions between cars and immigrants on the freeway in San Ysidro.
Fewer people have tried to sneak into the U.S. over the last two decades, further decreasing the need for the immigrant crossing signs.
Both in San Diego and across the Southwest border, the number of people caught crossing into the U.S. has dropped dramatically in the 21st century. The federal government estimates the number of people trying to cross into the U.S. based on the number of people caught entering illegally, so fewer apprehensions means that fewer people are trying to slip in.
In San Diego, Border Patrol agents apprehended 26,086 people in fiscal 2017, an 83% drop from the 151,681 people caught in fiscal 2000.
Across the Southwest, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.6 million people in fiscal 2000, according to data from the agency.
In fiscal 2017, agents apprehended 303,916 people, an 82% decrease.
The yellow caution sign’s image has been the source of controversy, with some seeing it as an offensive caricature of Mexican immigrants.
Justin Akers Chacón, a professor of Chicano studies at San Diego City College, said critics of the sign’s imagery felt that it dehumanized migrants by likening them to animals.
Critics also were bothered by the way the sign’s message fit into the immigration enforcement system.
“The deaths of migrant crossers was treated as an acceptable consequence of the enforcement model, not a reflection of the failure of the model,” Akers Chacón said.
An early version of the sign was entirely text: “Caution watch for people crossing road.”
Motorists weren’t able to read and process that sign quickly enough, so Caltrans asked artist John Hood to design an image to convey the message.
“It doesn’t just mean they are running across the freeway,” Hood told the Union-Tribune in 2005, describing his choice of imagery. “It means they are running from something else as well. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of things — for opportunities, for freedom.”
Caltrans installed 10 signs, focusing on areas like San Ysidro and the San Clemente checkpoint, where migrants were known to cross the interstate on foot frequently.
The silhouette of a man with a mustache and a woman in a dress running with their young daughter, her hair in pigtails flying behind her, has been repurposed by different sides of the immigration debate over the years.
Those on the restrictionist side use the image to symbolize an unruly border, adding guns or nuclear bombs to political cartoons of the sign.
Those who advocate for migrants have reworked the sign as a family of pilgrims or college graduates.
“There’s only a handful of really iconic images that have been successfully mobilized for the purposes of immigration politics,” said Everard Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “The thing with these symbols is that the response is 50-50.
“Some people see that sign and think, ‘My God, this is a sign that represents how our immigration policy has just failed, and we’ve put people in this vulnerable position such that we have to have a road sign so people don’t run them over on the highway,’ ” Meade added.
Others take it as a sign of an out-of-control border, Meade said, and that perception contributed to support for movements like California’s Proposition 187, which barred unauthorized immigrants from the public education system and from public health services, except for emergency care required by federal law. A federal judge blocked the proposition from taking effect.
Even the sign’s disappearance caused split reactions among those in the political debate.
Joshua Wilson, vice president of the San Diego chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, has supported President Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies.
Wilson said he sees not needing the signs anymore as a positive thing. It shows what investing in border security can do, he said.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, and I remember those signs as a kid coming down here,” Wilson said. “What it symbolizes to me is how out of control things were before we put in the infrastructure with Operation Gatekeeper.”
Operation Gatekeeper, a ramped-up enforcement strategy implemented along the San Diego border in the mid-’90s, shifted migrant routes east over mountains and through deserts.
Pedro Rios, director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee, advocates for migrant rights and opposes Trump’s immigration policies.
Rios said he remembered clearly when the signs were installed and the deaths that were happening along the border.
“If there are no more Caltrans immigrant crossing signs left, I think it will reflect a reality about immigration that overzealous politicians fail to acknowledge when advocating for increasing border enforcement measures — that migration into the United States has been at a decline since at least the year 2000, and perhaps longer than that,” Rios said.
He pointed out that Operation Gatekeeper didn’t mean that fewer migrants were dying trying to cross the border. The number of border crossing deaths increased significantly, but they were away from major cities and out of public view.
“Ironically, as Operation Gatekeeper pushed migrants into less-populated desert and mountainous areas, fewer migrants died crossing in the San Diego region, but this meant more migrants were in peril in the less-visible treacherous crossing routes,” Rios said.
The shift of migrant routes to more remote locations has contributed to the political divide, Meade said.
“So much of what actually happens is invisible,” Meade said. “The anecdotal story, whatever does become visible gets exaggerated.”
For Meade, the last sign’s disappearance isn’t the end of an era. He noted that immigration from Mexico has had a net of zero since 2005, meaning as many people are going back to Mexico as are coming here.
“I think it already passed,” Meade said. “It’s late to be talking about the sign.”
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.