SAN DIEGO — Caltrans has given the San Diego Minutemen a new stretch of road to clean up for the Adopt-A-Highway program, moving the group that fights illegal immigration from Interstate 5 near the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint to a quieter, less visible state highway.
Caltrans officials say the change was made because of safety concerns.
Last week, members of the state Latino Legislative caucus warned Caltrans that the signs indicating the San Diego Minutemen's stretch of freeway on I-5 could draw protesters to the busy area near San Clemente.
Caltrans workers removed the signs from the northbound and southbound lanes Monday night. The group's new two-mile stretch of highway is located along California 52 in eastern San Diego County near Santee.
That highway has much less traffic than I-5, which handles 160,000 cars per day near San Clemente, and doesn't have the "distractions" of a Border Patrol checkpoint," said Caltrans District Director Pedro Orso-Delgado.
"Hopefully that eliminates a lot of the potential risk," said Orso-Delgado.
The San Diego Minutemen wasn't the first such group to sign up for an Adopt-A-Highway program. The Campo Minutemen adopted a county road in southern San Diego County last year.
But news that the San Diego group had been given the spot on I-5 was strongly criticized.
Immigrant-rights groups argued that the Minutemen shouldn't be allowed to participate in Adopt-A-Highway, which has rules barring groups that advocate violence or discrimination. The Minutemen said they advocated neither.
Caltrans officials said the group had been given the stretch of freeway including the Border Patrol checkpoint by chance.
But critics called the location especially troubling.
Enrique Morones, president of the immigrant-rights group Border Angels, said some extremist activists were threatening to take down or spray- paint the signs.
Jeff Schwilk, the San Diego Minutemen founder, said he was considering legal action to keep the original stretch of highway, where the group held its first cleanup two weeks ago. Ten members collected trash without incident, he said.
"Caltrans could be violating their own rules of discrimination by revoking our permit," said Schwilk. "We're not going to relinquish it voluntarily."
California Department of Transportation made the decision after the meeting with a delegation of Latino legislators, including state Assembly members Lori Saldana (D-San Diego) and Joe Coto (D-San Jose) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), said Joe Kocurek, Saldana's press secretary.
Orso-Delgado said Caltrans is reviewing the group's eligibility after receiving numerous phone calls and e-mails from individuals and organizations. He said Caltrans had not ruled out barring the group from the program.
"We have received information during the past couple of weeks that warrants a closer look at the San Diego Minutemen relative to the eligibility criteria of this program," Orso-Delgado said.
San Diego police searched Schwilk's home last year while investigating a complaint of vandalism at a migrants camp in northern San Diego County. But Schwilk said neither he nor members of his group have ever been arrested for immigrant-related violence.