Immigration: Slaughter Alley

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He lay hidden by the foliage of the highway median, inches from help, paralyzed after being struck by a hit-and-run car, watching helplessly for three days and nights as thousands of cars sped northward toward Los Angeles from San Diego. When finally discovered, he was rushed to a La Jolla hospital, where he told doctors how he sipped water from freeway sprinklers to stay alive. He will survive, though probably crippled for life. He was lucky.

This illegal entrant to the United States is one of almost 250 men, women, and children, mostly Mexican, struck by automobiles on Interstate 5 in San Diego County during the last two years. Half of those struck died on impact. The youngest killed was 3, the oldest an 82-year-old trying to reach his family in Los Angeles.

The eight-lane Interstate 5 starts at the Mexican border to the south and ends at the Canadian border to the north, passing through San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles, places with hundreds of thousands of illegals from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and practically every country south of the Rio Grande. American border officials estimate that as many as 5,000 people illegally cross the border from Tijuana into San Diego each night. When they successfully elude the 50 or so on-duty border patrolmen stretched thinly along 20 miles of unfenced border, they have several options. For example, they can make their way into San Diego proper to stay and work, or thley can move north toward job-rich Orange County and Los Angeles.

To do so, illegals must pass through 50 miles of San Diego, the nation's sixth largest city, and its northern suburbs, then face 20 miles of military base and thousands of training and maneuvering U.S. Marines. On the northern edge of the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Base, they face the final obstacle before they enter Orange County and adjoining Los Angeles. It's a fully staffed U.S. Border Patrol inspection stop, the San Clemente Checkpoint, through which every northbound vehicle must pass.

Most illegals are easily spotted by manner of dress, haircuts, and language ability; border patrolmen arrested 75,000 of them last year as they attempted to get through the checkpoint driving stolen vehicles, riding as car passengers, or hiding in car trunks, above false truck ceilings, beneath floors, or behind side panels.

To avoid detection, smugglers—who charge a minimum of $350 for passage to Los Angeles—often drop off their passengers near the San Clemente Checkpoint, instructing them to cross the interstate on foot to the ocean side, where they can walk northward past the checkpoint. Once past it, they are to cross the highway eastward so they can rejoin their smugglers, usually called coyotes, for the 30-mile ride to Los Angeles. Of 65 pedestrians struck by fast-moving cars in this area during the past two years, 40 have died, killed as they ran across I-5 after being dropped off by coyotes within sight of the checkpoint.

Some illegal entrants take less dangerous routes. For example, they make their way from the border to downtown San Diego, then scramble aboard northbound freight trains, hoping to reach Los Angeles by rail. Hundreds of illegals can be seen running from hiding places in trash dumpsters, buildings, and track-side foliage to jump into freight cars when the trains slow down as they pass through urban rail crossings. When manpower is available, the Border Patrol stops and searches trains after they leave San Diego. Normally, however, personnel shortages prevent the Border Patrol from searching each train, so hundreds of illegal entrants reach Los Angeles by this route each night. The freight-train method, however, is mainly for young men traveling alone.

A more expensive variation on this strategy involves elaborate preparation. For $5,000, sophisticated coyotes will train their clients in San Diego safehouses to walk and dress like preppy, well-to-do Americans of Mexican descent. They teach them English through a two-week total-immersion course. Diplomas are in the form of false birth certificates, driver's licenses, and Social Security cards.

An $8.00 taxi ride to the San Diego airport and a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., or Jobtown, USA, complete the package. Graduates then have to avoid arousing the suspicion of a dozen undercover Border Patrol and immigration agents regularly stationed at the airport. When their planes take off, they've made it. Summa cum laude, so to speak. But most entrants cannot afford the tuition.

In any event, the vehicular slaughter in the vicinity of the San Clemente Checkpoint pales in comparison with that 60 miles to the south, in the area where Interstate 5 and Interstate 805 split just north of the border. Of 162 people struck by cars in that zone during the last two years, 87 have been killed. These two highways are a dozen lanes of fast-moving traffic separating illegals from northbound transportation and the safety of residential areas. The few culverts and bridges crossing under the wide concrete expanse are usually well guarded by border patrolmen and/or local police. So the illegals must cross the highways on foot.

Some observers speculate that most of those killed are Indians from Southern Mexico who cannot conceptualize cars traveling at 70 or 80 miles per hour. Others suggest that many are exhausted by middle-of-the-night border crossings and their struggle to elude border patrolmen and violent border bandits—mostly renegade Mexicans—and that this exhaustion simply slows their reflexes. In this race, to lose is to die.

Both explanations are probably right. Another factor is the use of interstate median strips for protection from border patrolmen. Some of those killed have been illegals who simply sat in the median areas during daylight, awaiting the cover of night. On a typical afternoon, motorists can see more illegals than they can count in the Interstate 5 median strip within two or three miles of the border. When a Border Patrol vehicle stops, the illegals simply jump over the three-foot-high concrete median wall to watch.

Sometimes they even taunt helpless border patrolmen. Randy Williamson, a recently retired patrolman, says the border guards are under strict orders not to chase illegals on freeways and interstates. Since these orders are common knowledge, illegals use the median strips as sanctuaries. Williamson speculates that the government is afraid that the injury or death of an illegal struck while being chased afoot on a busy highway would generate expensive lawsuits by survivors and family members.

Efforts to alleviate the I-5 pedestrian slaughter, the heaviest of any highway in the United States, include signs with blinking yellow lights that warn motorists to watch for people on the road. A public/private task force has suggested several other measures, some of which have been implemented. In Tijuana, U.S. officials have begun distributing small prayer cards printed with U.S. tax dollars that warn in Spanish, "For the love of God, don't cross the highways!" CalTrans, the California Department of Transportation, is printing 500,000 flyers for enclosure in San Diego utility bills with various messages in Spanish and English suggesting slower speeds in the killing zones.

The flyers include maps indicating the locations of the zones and pictures of the "Watch for People" highway signs. The final and most expensive solution proposed by the task force is a multimillion dollar fence to be constructed along stretches of the I-5 median. The fence—7 to 10 feet high and made of chain links too small for footholds—is intended to discourage people from crossing the highways. But it may just force illegals to walk around the new barrier, with the result that they will be even more tired and less alert when they cross the highway.

Regardless of the solutions proposed by government task forces, the slaughter will probably continue. I'll never forget the experience of driving north from the border at night, picking up speed, heading home after a pleasant social event in Tijuana—and then freezing at the sight of a dozen people dashing across the road in front of my car. I pulled over, hyperventilating, with the memory of people inches away from being struck by my car at 70 miles an hour.

Yet a small piece of paper can save these lives and spare innocent motorists the horror of accidentally killing men, women, and children. A work permit issued by the U.S. government would legalize those coming to the United States for honest employment. A work permit would allow entrants from Mexico to behave like normal people trying to make a living, instead of like criminals, victimized by bandits on the one hand and prison or deportation on the other. It's been done before. An agreement with Mexico in 1944 provided all the farm workers needed in America for two decades. But in 1965 the Johnson administration, under pressure from labor unions, allowed the treaty to expire.

As long as the U.S. government stands between determined people and the jobs they seek, residents of Southern California will continue to read reports like this one in their newspapers: "A Mexican woman was struck by a car and killed while crossing the freeway near the U.S. border Friday night, police said. The driver of the car, a 27-year-old man, was not injured. No charges were filed." "The driver was not injured.…"

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a syndicated columnist based in San Diego.

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