OCEANSIDE — Caltrans officials announced Wednesday that they will build a tall fence down the middle of Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County in an attempt to stop illegal immigrants from running across the busy freeway and being hit and killed.
The decision to build the eight-mile chain-link-type fence near the Camp Pendleton border checkpoint was immediately criticized by one immigrant rights group, which said the barrier will cause more problems and deaths than it will prevent.
The fence, which will be up to 10 feet tall, will be built at a cost of $3 million in about two years between Las Pulgas and Basilone roads, authorities said.
"I am convinced this safety fence will save lives," Caltrans San Diego District Director Jesus Garcia said in announcing the decision.
Since 1987, 38 people, mostly illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America, have died in the Camp Pendleton area and an additional 25 have been injured while attempting to cross the freeway near the checkpoint. So far this year, 22 people have been hit--a new record--including 13 who died.
Many of the victims were dropped off short of the checkpoint, a common practice used by smugglers to avoid immigration officials.
Typically, the aliens run across the freeway to the southbound lanes to avoid the checkpoint, often darting in front of surprised drivers. Once they have walked past the checkpoint, the aliens recross the freeway to rejoin the smugglers for the trip north to Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Garcia made his announcement at the checkpoint, where he was joined by Ben Davidian, regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; Gus De La Vina, the top U.S. Border Patrol official in San Diego, and Ron Oliver, head of the California Highway Patrol's border division.
The fence will be only one part of a concerted effort to keep aliens off the interstate. Other plans include placing signs that warn drivers about the freeway-crossers and billboards in Spanish at rest stops with a warning not to cross the interstate.
"For the love of God, don't cross the highway on foot," the billboard message will read in Spanish.
The decision to construct the fence comes after Cal State Fullerton completed a study that called for a barrier as the best way to reduce the number of deaths involving pedestrians.
The Caltrans-commissioned study was released two weeks ago. It surveyed more than 100 policy makers, academics, immigrant advocates and others who have followed the issue. It found that 71% of the respondents thought a freeway barrier would be "very effective" or "extremely effective" in deterring pedestrians.
Claudia Smith, a lawyer in the Oceanside office of California Rural Legal Assistance, in a letter sent Monday to Caltrans Director Robert C. Best in Sacramento, called the Cal State Fullerton study "badly skewed" and said a barrier "is not likely to reduce the carnage and may well make crossings riskier."
She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.