Four lanes of Interstate 5 near the Mexican border will be reopened and a 10-foot-high fence will be built along the median to prevent illegal aliens from crossing the freeway, officials announced Friday.
The action halts, after only six weeks, what was to have been a six-month experiment designed to prevent pedestrian deaths at the busy border crossing by closing half of the freeway's eight lanes. The decision came after a closed-door meeting of representatives of the U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Police Department, California Highway Patrol and state Department of Transportation.
The new plan reflects a change in philosophy about how to keep illegal immigrants from being struck and killed as they cross the freeway. By closing the lanes, officials had hoped to make the crossing safer; by erecting a fence, the goal will be to thwart the immigrants' crossing.
Migrant activists said a median fence will increase the danger because migrants will probably move north to unbarricaded areas and attempt to cross in unlighted spots where traffic speeds are higher.
Jesus Garcia, Caltrans district director, said the barriers that have narrowed the freeway to two lanes in each direction just north of the San Ysidro border crossing will start to come down Tuesday. Removal is expected within a week, followed by construction of the fence and additional lighting.
The $88,000 narrowing project began in mid-July. Many illegal immigrants dash across the freeway to reach San Ysidro or rendezvous with smugglers taking them north to find work. The experiment was to be evaluated after six months.
"No one anticipated the great number of aliens who congregate in the (now widened) center median," Garcia said, explaining the reason for canceling the experiment. Earlier this week, law enforcement agencies asked Caltrans to end the experiment because of the increasing number of aliens and rising crime in the so-called median "safe zone" where neither CHP nor Border Patrol officers have bothered the aliens. Twice within the past two weeks, pedestrians have been killed, anyway.
Garcia said the 10-foot-high median fence will stretch from the border to Coronado Avenue. He conceded that the barrier "will not stop all from crossing," but said it might cut down on the number of women and young children attempting the dangerous dash.
Since 1985, there have been 112 pedestrian deaths in the border area. All involved immigrants and all occurred at night.
Roberto Martinez, American Friends Service Committee spokesman, called the abrupt termination of the experiment "another deal cut between Caltrans and the Border Patrol without taking into account the recommendations of the migrant activists."
He predicted an increase in pedestrian fatalities "because the migrants will move north to cross. They will find another place, where probably there will be no lighting and no controls."
"I see no point in continuing the task force after this," Martinez said, referring to a group formed about 18 months ago to study the problems caused by border crossers. Migrant representatives on the task force had urged that the freeway experiment be allowed to continue until December.
Claudia Smith, California Rural Legal Assistance attorney, also protested the planned median barricade because "these people are driven by desperation and are going to seek out more dangerous places to cross the freeway."
An educational program and signs designed to slow traffic where freeway crossers congregate "is working well," Smith said, pointing out that border-area pedestrian deaths, which totaled 17 during 1990, have only reached seven so far in 1991.
The most recent death was that of a 14-year-old, waiting in the I-5 median about a mile north of the border. A southbound car swerved into the closed lanes, striking the youth and his 28-year-old brother, who was injured.