Decreased traffic gives Border Patrol opportunity to screen vehicles in Rainbow

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Cars line up to be screened by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the agency's interior checkpoint in Rainbow. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

RAINBOW – It’s a sight that many Southwest Riverside County commuters are no longer accustomed to seeing.

The U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Rainbow has been there since long before many residents of the Temecula Valley even moved to the area, but it’s likely not something that is on most drivers’ minds these days — the daily afternoon traffic backup on northbound Interstate 15 all the way to Winchester Road has seen to that.

It’s been a long time since Border Patrol agents have run the Rainbow checkpoint during the daily commute, but drivers who are still out and about despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order, whether for work or otherwise, may have noticed agents are once again checking vehicles just south of Temecula in the middle of the day.

The sudden, sharp drop in vehicular travel due to the stay-at-home order has had the
side effect of giving the Border Patrol an opportunity to conduct screenings at the
Rainbow checkpoint during much of the day, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffrey
Stephenson said.

There are many such interior checkpoints in the border region — on Interstate 5 south of San Clemente, on Interstate 8 east of San Diego and on state Route 78 north of Brawley, to name a few. The Border Patrol is allowed to run these inspection stations anywhere within 100 miles of the border. Agents can stop vehicles briefly at the stations to ask occupants about their citizenship status and suspicious drivers can be asked to pull over for further investigation.

Longtime residents of the Temecula area may remember going through the checkpoint
on every trip back from San Diego, but over the last two decades, the Border Patrol has
stopped checking vehicles during the day as commuter traffic has increased to
unmanageable levels, according to Stephenson.

Agents still run the checkpoint outside of peak hours, Stephenson said — something
that those who don’t often travel the freeway during the witching hour may not even be
aware of.

“The checkpoint has never stopped being operational. If we open it during the day,
traffic backs up and it’s not sustainable,” Stephenson said. “We open it a lot at 1 or 2
a.m.”

Of course, Stephenson said, the Border Patrol would like to run the inspection station a lot more than that.

“If we could, we’d have the checkpoint open 24/7,” he said.

And while agents still are constricted by traffic congestion in how long they can keep the
checkpoint open, it’s not nearly as much of a problem while many Riverside County
commuters are working from home, or not working at all.

“As a byproduct of that, we are opening the checkpoint more during the day,”
Stephenson said.

But, he stressed, the increased screenings have nothing to do with the state’s stay-at-
home order.

“The agents are never asking people why they’re out, where they’re traveling,” he said
— they’re deterring illegal immigration and drug smuggling, as usual.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.