Apprehensions at two of the most highly traveled Border Patrol checkpoints in Southern California have plunged so drastically in the last six years that some are questioning whether the hundreds of agents stationed there--and the checkpoints themselves--are even necessary.
The checkpoints--one in San Diego County just south of San Clemente and the other in Temecula--have for years angered motorists, many of whom have to wait up to 45 minutes to pass through. To ease the strain, the Border Patrol routinely suspends inspections on weekends and holidays or in inclement weather, when traffic is more likely to back up.
But that practice, along with the fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border in 1994 under Operation Gatekeeper, has resulted in an 80% drop in apprehensions at San Clemente and an 84% drop in Temecula in the last six years.
Some Border Patrol agents say the checkpoint hours of operation are so familiar to smugglers that they plan their travels when the inspectors are gone, going so far as to station lookouts near one checkpoint and alert smugglers when inspectors are most eager to clear traffic through.
"Only stupid smugglers or mom-and-pop smugglers get caught, usually during the week," said a veteran agent at San Clemente. "I-5 becomes an alien-and-drugs highway on weekends."
Some people, including Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), whose district includes both checkpoints, have questioned whether the 145 agents stationed at the San Clemente facility and the 140 stationed at Temecula--and the millions of dollars in resources to keep them there--could be better used along the border, about 70 miles away.
The checkpoints are mostly "a symbolic show of force on the freeways," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. "Is the taxpayer getting the maximum bang for his dollars for deterrence by keeping these checkpoints open? No."
But Johnny Williams, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Western regional commissioner, defends the current strategy.
"The checkpoints have been integral in the overall success of Gatekeeper," said Williams, who helped plan that program's effort to run a metal fence along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains in east San Diego County and station more agents there.
Both the Temecula and San Clemente checkpoints monitor northbound traffic and millions of travelers driving from San Diego or Mexico. Agents stand between lanes, quickly screening vehicles and occupants for illegal immigrants, drugs or other illicit activity.
But the Border Patrol has to juggle the need to keep the checkpoints open with the crush of traffic that can sometimes keep cars and trucks waiting as long as 45 minutes. A decade ago, delays of up to an hour were common. Williams said agents monitor traffic congestion and try to keep the wait no longer than 20 minutes.
"We attempt to balance our need for enforcement with the public safety," Williams said. "To persons from outside the agency it must appear needless. They think that agents are just standing there between lanes waiting for aliens to show up."
Over the years, the checkpoints have survived both threats by Packard and others in Congress to shut them down and legal challenges by civil libertarians, who say the random inspections infringe on constitutional rights.
Packard even had a provision inserted into a current funding bill requiring the two checkpoints to conduct inspections around the clock in order to be funded.
"For years I worked aggressively to shut down the inland checkpoints, which were only open sporadically and thus ineffective," Packard said in a recent written statement. He said funds used by the INS to operate the facilities "would be better spent at the border."
To help the traffic flow, Packard pressured the INS to install a $13-million commuter lane at San Clemente, the only facility with such a lane. It is open from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Commuters who want to use the special lane must undergo background checks and are issued bar codes for their vehicles that are read by a computer as they pass by.
The lane was designed to accommodate thousands, but officials said only 500 motorists use it each day, a number the agency considers disappointing. Of those, 5% are "blow-bys," unauthorized motorists getting around the checkpoint delays, said agency spokeswoman Gloria Chavez.
But "blow-bys" aren't the biggest problem, agents say.
Some say smugglers wait until inspections have been suspended to drive drugs and illegal immigrants through.
For example, inspections are stopped and traffic is "flushed" through when the line of waiting cars stretches one mile. When that happens, vehicles are allowed to drive through without being inspected for about 20 minutes or until traffic thins out.
Lookouts stationed across the freeway at San Onofre State Park or at a viewpoint about two miles south of the checkpoint alert smugglers in Oceanside, about 10 minutes away, who are waiting to transport human or drug cargo, officials say.
Authorities cited safety concerns for curtailing inspections despite Packard's congressional mandate that they be conducted around the clock.
"If we did inspections on Thanksgiving Day or the weekend, cars would be backed up to Carlsbad [25 miles south], maybe farther," said Luis Amavizca, daytime watch commander. "We have to measure the operational needs with the safety of everybody involved."