SAN DIEGO -- While politicians are embroiled in a polarized national debate over immigration, an iconic road sign cautioning drivers near the San Diego border to watch for migrants running across the highway has quietly disappeared.
The "immigrant crossing" signs have become obsolete, said Cathryne Bruce-Johnson, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation. The department stopped replacing the signs years ago because it constructed fences along medians to deter people from running across highways.
The last sign, which stood on the side of Interstate 5 near the San Ysidro border crossing, vanished in September.
"It's gone," Bruce-Johnson said. "Caltrans crews did not remove it, so it's assumed stolen."
Signs are more often damaged or vandalized than stolen, according to Bruce-Johnson, but when they are taken, there isn't much Caltrans can do to get them back.
California Highway Patrol Sgt. Dan Kyle said that officers who worked during the years before the fences were added recalled responding weekly to several fatal collisions between cars and unauthorized immigrants on the highway in San Ysidro.
Fewer people have tried to sneak between ports of entry into the U.S. for most of the last two decades, further decreasing need for "immigrant crossing" signs.
Both in San Diego and across the southwest border, the number of people caught crossing has dropped dramatically in the 21st century. The federal government estimates the number of people trying to cross based on the number of people caught, so fewer apprehensions means that fewer people are trying to slip in.
In San Diego, Border Patrol agents apprehended 26,086 people in fiscal 2017, an 83 percent drop from the 151,681 people caught in fiscal 2000.
Across the southwest border, the Border Patrol apprehended 1,643,679 people in fiscal 2000, according to data from the agency.