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Sign May Have Run Its Course

Border: Many say drop in pedestrian deaths means drivers no longer need warnings.

September 01, 2002|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The signs are hard to miss. They are 5 feet by 7 feet and warn drivers on San Diego's busy freeways about the seemingly improbable: that pedestrians, indeed entire families, could come dashing across the lanes at any moment.

But that picture is no longer accurate.

A decade ago, the subject of those signs, illegal border crossers from Mexico, used to die by the dozens every year as they crisscrossed the freeways on their northbound treks to Los Angeles and elsewhere.

When Caltrans erected the signs in 1992, it also built 10-to 12-foot-high median fences on portions of Interstate 5 to discourage the dangerous practice.

Eight years ago, as part of Operation Gatekeeper, the U.S. crackdown on the California border with Mexico, authorities built fortified walls between San Diego and Tijuana that stemmed the human flow and pushed it away to more remote, but no less deadly, areas to the east.

The result has been a dramatic decrease in migrant-related pedestrian fatalities. Today, migrants are more likely to die of hypothermia or heat exhaustion crossing the deserts of Imperial Valley than they are to be hit by cars on San Diego-area freeways.

The border area "is still a dangerous place," said William Veal, chief of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector. "But those signs are no longer necessary because of the infrastructure we've built on the border."

Jesus Garcia, now retired as San Diego-area Caltrans director, oversaw the original signs project. "I'm sure, someday," he said recently, "someone will ask if those signs ought to come down, if it hasn't happened already."

It has.

A San Diego newspaper columnist has proposed that the signboards now belong in a museum rather than on the highway.

Caltrans said some of its own field workers also have suggested the signs are no longer necessary.

"We have heard some comments out there that the signs may have outlived their usefulness," said Steve Seville, a California Department of Transportation spokesman. "There are no formal plans [to take them down], but we are open to suggestion."

In their decade of existence, the signs--a stark silhouette of a man, a woman and a child running--have evoked more than a simple traffic threat.

They have spawned countless souvenirs and artistic interpretations of the country's uneasy relationship with illegal immigration.

Some have called the signs racist, saying they imply a region overrun by people deemed undesirable. They have also come to represent the immigrant plight, the impulse to make it to America whatever the risks.

"The first time I saw the sign," said artist Joe Lewis, "I found it really disturbing. It almost seemed like it was saying it was open season [on immigrants], almost like a deer crossing sign. People were getting killed going for a better life."

Lewis, dean of art and design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and a former Californian, recently created a piece based on the signs--a 50-by-80-inch wall made of salt blocks carved with an image of the running family.

The installation is part of an exhibition titled "Mixed Feelings: Art and Culture in the Postborder Metropolis." It opens Wednesday at USC's Fisher Gallery.

The signs may have lost their relevance, Lewis said, but they still speak volumes about the pull that brings immigrants to the U.S. And the people continue to come, "but they are dying in different locations, of different causes," said Claudia Smith, director of the border project of the Oceanside-based office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Smith is an outspoken critic of Operation Gatekeeper, which she and others blame for the hundreds of migrant deaths that have occurred from Imperial Valley to Arizona. And she said that migrants occasionally still are victims of freeway accidents.

Earlier this month, a young Mexican was found dead along Otay Mesa Road near the border, an apparent hit-and-run victim.

Smith said the Mexican Consulate in San Diego confirmed that the man had illegally crossed the border. The consulate did not return calls requesting comment.

The California Highway Patrol said the incident is still under investigation. According to the CHP, pedestrian deaths on freeways near the border have hovered between two and three annually in recent years.

The agency does not record the immigration status of such victims, but a spokesman said the deaths often involve drivers struck when they venture out of their broken-down cars.

In the five years before the signs went up in 1992, about 90 immigrants were killed along border-area freeways, mostly on or along Interstate 5.

Farther north, near the Border Patrol checkpoint at San Onofre, another 40 were killed in the same period. The migrants were hit as they tried to get around the inspection point by crossing the freeway on foot and re-boarding cars north of the checkpoint.

A couple of signs continue to caution drivers approaching the checkpoint, even though there have been no pedestrian fatalities there in at least four years.

Smith sees no cause for cheer.

"All they have done," she said, "is to move the flow out of the urban areas ... to give an appearance of border control."

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