Eighty thousand cars a day pass through the immigration checkpoint at the south end of Temecula. And that means about 80,000 times a day a question gets asked: Why is this here, 70 miles north of the border?
I put this question to Sherry Feltner-Redondo, patrol agent in charge of the Temecula station since 1993. She has heard it many times before. As traffic has increased, so have critics who advocate closing the station -- including Congressman Darrell Issa of the 48th District.
"I know it's a pain to drive through the checkpoint," she said. "When people consider buying homes up here, they maybe go through it a couple of times and don't give it much thought. But then, every day... Well, it's like people buying homes by the airport. But we play an important role. If you're having a winning season, you don't remove your outfielders."
Athletic metaphors are apparently popular at the Temecula station. A while later, Rene Gonzalez, assistant agent in charge, said, "The Chargers wouldn't get rid of their defensive backs, would they?"
Whether outfielders or defensive backs, they've been part of the team for a long time. The Temecula and San Clemente stations, the busiest internal checkpoints in the nation, were established in 1924 to stop Al Capone's smuggling of liquor and Chinese workers. In those days, Highways 101 and 395 were the only routes running north and south.
Today there are more, of course, and that complicates matters.
"When I drove up here," I confessed to Agent Feltner-Redondo, "I exited at Rainbow Valley Road, easily driving around your checkpoint. And I followed a large paneled truck that, for all I know, was filled with 50 illegal aliens. Wouldn't any half-competent smuggler simply take an alternate route?"
"We keep them guessing. We randomly post agents on the alternate routes."
"I would think that if I were trying to sneak into this country, and I somehow made it across the desert of Imperial County, I could survive the wilds of Fallbrook."
"Yeah, the ones we catch must be pretty dumb, huh? Oops, did I say that? [She pointed to my tape recorder]. Forget I said that. If I had more agents and resources, I could do a better job. I've actually got ten checkpoints at this station -- six are what we call 'essential' and four are 'tactical.' But I just don't have the manpower to do it all."
"What happens to those you apprehend?"
"We read them their rights, then process them. We have a couple of holding cells here. If they're willing to go back, a bus picks them up."
"How many apprehensions do you make on an average day?"
"It varies." She seemed noncommittal, almost evasive. "One day it might be 12, another 2."
The Public Information Office of the Border Patrol says that in fiscal year 1995, the Temecula station apprehended 16,782; in fiscal year 2002 the number was 3256 -- an average of about 9 a day. This decline parallels the statistics for the region. The San Diego sector apprehended 556,231 in fiscal year 1995 but only 100,667 in fiscal year 2002.
Agent Feltner-Redondo attributed the drop to the increased presence of the Border Patrol following Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which substantially increased personnel and resources. "In 1995 they kept coming," she said, "and they got caught. So by 1996 the decline started. It's a matter of deterrence. It's now tougher to get through, so fewer try it."
"Or, I suppose, the smugglers are more efficient."
"There's no way to know for sure."
To catch those nine illegal immigrants each day, the Temecula station employs 150 agents. They work eight-hour shifts, which usually expand a couple of hours each day because of overtime. Before they can stand between freeway lanes checking cars, they go through 20 weeks of training, taking courses in immigration and criminal law, firearm use, ethics and conduct, and Spanish (all agents are bilingual).
But experience is the best teacher. They watch carefully the reactions of thousands of motorists each day, and they learn to spot irregularities. Is he gripping the wheel too hard? Is she too cheerful? Is he too eager to give an answer? And they watch the eyes, especially the eyes, sometimes asking motorists to take off their sunglasses.
"My son-in-law is Latino," I told Feltner-Redondo. "Would he be more likely than I to be pulled over for further questioning?"
"No, not really. Racial profiling is an issue in most of the complaints I receive. People come to me and say, 'Why did you pull me over? I'm not even Hispanic!' "
"It must be difficult standing in the middle of traffic all day long."
"Well, they rotate that assignment. They're usually out there in half-hour shifts. The rest of the time they do administrative work and other things."
"I couldn't help noticing the plaque on the wall by the front door, the memorial to Agents Newton and Azrak, killed in the line of duty in 1967. It must be a constant reminder of the danger you face."
"We're aware of it. We have to stay alert, keep an eye on each other."
"What sort of weapons do you carry?"
"How often have you had to use them?"
"Here, three or four times in the last ten years."
"Give me an example of when that was necessary."
"One guy jumped out of his car and started swinging a machete. Thought he was the Son of God. An agent shot him."
"Was he killed?"
"Just wounded. Whenever there's a shooting, I talk with the agent, get him into counseling. It's tough. There's always an investigation, to make sure everything was done properly."
"What was your own most harrowing experience?"
She paused, thinking. Then her eyes brightened. "I once took down 55 males by myself!"
"Yeah, and I wasn't even scared. I was too young to know any better."
Perhaps this would be the appropriate place to mention that Feltner-Redondo had been a professional roller-derby skater before joining the Patrol. I had the impression that she wouldn't have been easily intimidated on the track, or for that matter, anywhere else.