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Another Injury Fuels Criticism of Checkpoint

January 22, 1992|DAVAN MAHARAJ and LESLIE BERKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN ONOFRE — A suspected 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 in one of the deadliest nights at the station.

The accident drew renewed outrage from local doctors who called on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to immediately close the station and from local officials who want the INS to find a better way to police the border.

An immigration official defended the checkpoint as "one of the best law enforcement tools in the country," where tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are caught each year after evading detection at the Mexico border 70 miles to the south.

The latest accident occurred about 7:55 p.m. Monday, when the driver of 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.

Authorities have not been able to identify the man, who is described only as a Latino in his 20s.

Doctors at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo said the victim suffered head injuries and is in a coma. He is on life support and is listed in critical condition.

Last week three illegal immigrants were killed in two separate accidents as they attempted to run across Interstate 5.

Only two pedestrian deaths occurred near the checkpoint last year. But Border Patrol agents said they fear that the recent rash of accidents signals an increase in such fatalities, perhaps breaking the record 15 deaths along an 8-mile stretch near the checkpoint in 1990. (That figure is for the fiscal year used by federal agencies and ran from Oct. 1, 1989, to Sept. 30, 1990.)

Doctors at the Mission Viejo hospital, where many of the victims are taken, Tuesday criticized the INS both for having the checkpoint and for the way the agency 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.

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 the 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 INS-related accidents during the last five years.

"In every case, there is a tremendous amount of sadness," said Shaver, who spoke for his colleagues at the regional trauma center. "These (illegal immigrants) are not drug-running people. They're coming here for work to support their family back home.

"And how would you like being the driver hitting an illegal immigrant? It's something you never forget for the rest of your life."

The spate of serious accidents is worrying officials in San Clemente and other cities to the north, who say that the freeway crossings and INS chases put their citizens in danger.

On Tuesday, San Clemente 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 and elsewhere have been critical of chases that begin at the checkpoint and run into their cities.

INS Western Regional Coordinator Ben Davidian has 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 added Tuesday 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 and 682 pounds of cocaine, and recovered 195 stolen vehicles at the San Onofre station, 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 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 cost . . . not caused by Border Patrol agents."

Meanwhile, authorities Tuesday identified two of the three people killed in last week's accidents.

The San Diego County medical examiner's office identified one as Hilario Madera-Alvarez, 17, of Jalisco, Mexico.

The body of another pedestrian killed in a separate accident was identified as Camirino AcostaAviles. He was buried by relatives in Fullerton, according to Miguel Escobar, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.

Authorities say it often is difficult to identify people killed in such accidents because many carry no identification. Cal Vine of the medical examiner's office said 25 of the pedestrians who have been killed near the Mexican border and San Onofre checkpoints since 1987 remain unidentified.

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