SAN ONOFRE, Calif. — A young man believed to be an illegal immigrant was in critical condition Tuesday after being struck while attempting to run across Interstate 5 near the Border Patrol checkpoint, just five days after three illegal immigrants were killed in similar fashion.
The accidents drew renewed outrage from local doctors who called on the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to immediately close the station and from officials who want the INS to find a better way to police the border.
Immigration officials have defended the checkpoint as "one of the best law enforcement tools in the country," and say that tens of thousands of migrants are caught there each year after evading detection at the border with Mexico 70 miles to the south.
The latest accident occurred at about 7:55 p.m. Monday when a Dodge Caravan slammed into a young man in the northbound lanes of the freeway, less than a mile north of the checkpoint, said Officer Craig Muehleisen of the California Highway Patrol.
Muehleisen said the driver was questioned but not cited. An investigation was continuing.
Authorities have not been able to identify the victim, described only as a Latino in his 20s.
Doctors at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo said he suffered head injuries and is in a coma. He is on life support and is listed in critical condition.
Last week, three pedestrians, all believed to have been illegal immigrants, were killed in two accidents as they attempted to run across Interstate 5.
Only two pedestrian deaths occurred near the checkpoint during the last fiscal year, from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, as measured by federal officials. But Border Patrol agents said they fear the recent rash of accidents may lead to a bloody year, perhaps surpassing the record 15 deaths recorded along an eight-mile stretch near the checkpoint in fiscal 1990.
Doctors at the Mission Viejo hospital, where many of the victims are taken, criticized the INS for having the checkpoint and for the way it handles injured immigrants.
Dr. Thomas Shaver, who heads the hospital's trauma unit, advocates the closing of the Border Patrol station. "It's ridiculous to have a checkpoint on a major freeway," he said Tuesday.
Shaver, who has kept records on trauma cases involving illegal immigrants, said that on some occasions Border Patrol agents have left the accident scene immediately after police arrived to avoid responsibility for immigrants' medical bills.
Shaver said the statistics show that at least 29 immigrants were brought to the hospital with serious injuries after being involved in accidents related to the INS checkpoint during the last five years.
"In every case, there is a tremendous amount of sadness," Shaver said. "These (illegal immigrants) are not drug-running people, they're coming here for work to support their family back home."
The spate of serious accidents is also worrying officials in nearby San Clemente and other cities to the north, who say that the freeway crossings and INS chases put their citizens in danger.
On Tuesday, Mayor Joseph Anderson renewed his complaints and said he agrees with Shaver that INS officials should place more emphasis on stopping illegal immigration at the border.
"The INS is still using a horse-and-buggy solution to a real modern problem," Anderson said. "The checkpoint is an antiquated facility. They have to rely more on enforcement at the border and public education instead of trying to trap people there."
Officials in Irvine, 34 miles north of the checkpoint, have been critical of high-speed chases that begin at the checkpoint and run into their city.
Former INS Western Regional Commissioner Ben Davidian once described the station as "one of the best law enforcement tools in the country," with 69,000 illegal immigrants arrested there last year.
Agent Steve Kean of the Border Patrol's office in San Ysidro repeated that statement Tuesday, adding that the checkpoint serves as a "plug to the pipeline for the smuggling of drugs" into the United States. Last year, Border Patrol agents seized 1,096 pounds of marijuana, 682 pounds of cocaine, and recovered 195 stolen vehicles at the checkpoint, Kean said.
Kean characterized as unfair the criticism of the Border Patrol's involvement in the accidents.
"The deaths and injuries are certainly unfortunate and tragic," Kean said, "but we're not leading them in front of vehicles or chasing them in the middle of the road. The criticism should be on the alien smuggler" who gets paid to bring the immigrants to Los Angeles.
Kean said the agency "always pay(s) hospital bills while the person is in our custody" or if someone is injured in fleeing the checkpoint. However, he said, the agency has "no obligation to pay medical costs . . . not caused by Border Patrol agents."
The three fatalities last week were the first at the checkpoint this year. Authorities Tuesday identified two of the three people killed.