Nearly 30 years after their initial installation, the iconic “running immigrant” yellow signs that once dotted California’s freeways near the southern border have been disappearing over the past several years. Now there’s just one left.
The yellow signs featured a silhouette of the figure of a man running hard, with a woman trailing behind, clutching the wrist of a little girl with her pigtails flying, and the word “CAUTION” above the illustration. The signs were meant to alert drivers of illegal immigrants running across the freeway near border checkpoints.
There were once a dozen or so of these signs, along the Interstate 5 Freeway near the San Ysidro border crossing south of San Diego as well as a stretch of the 5 Freeway along Camp Pendleton just before it reaches the San Clemente Border Patrol checkpoint near the Orange County line. But over the years, accidents and vandalism have wiped out most of the signs, with just one remaining now near San Ysidro.
The signs were installed after more than 100 people were killed trying to cross the freeway in the 1980s. In 1986, illegal crossings in the San Diego sector reached an all-time high, with 628,000 apprehensions, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. According to the Los Angeles Times, the area — geographically the smallest for Border Patrol — was once the busiest sector for illegal immigration in the U.S., accounting for more than 40 percent of nationwide apprehensions in the early ’90s.
In the 1990s, federal officials decided to erect a wall between the U.S. and Mexico in the San Diego area and as a result, illegal crossings migrated east to Arizona and Texas. By 2016 Border Patrol agents apprehended 31,891 people in the San Diego sector suspected of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
But in the 1980s the freeway crossings were a real danger to both the drivers and illegals trying to evade Border Patrol. In the Camp Pendleton area of the 5 Freeway, oftentimes human smugglers would order the illegals they were shuttling to cross 8-10 lanes of high-speed freeway traffic to get to the beachside and proceed on foot until they were past the checkpoint. More than a few occasions, the illegals would be run over by speeding and unsuspecting drivers right in front of their family members.
Caltrans then decided to replace the ineffective text signs that read “Caution: Watch for People Crossing Road,” and enlisted its graphic artist John Hood to design a new sign. A Vietnam vet who grew up in a Navajo reservation, Hood drew on his experience from the war as well as stories his parents told him about the Navajo flight and came up a sign that conveyed both urgency and fear.
The new signs immediately drew lots of attention as well as criticism. Some Latino activists deemed the faceless silhouettes racist. Anti-illegal immigration advocates thought the state should not spend money to protect people who were breaking the law. But entrepreneurs loved it. Since the image remained public property and no one had to pay Caltrans for its use, souvenirs featuring a variation of the “running immigrants” propped up all over Southern California on T-shirts, stickers, and flags.
“You create your work, and that’s the extent of it. You never envision something like that to happen,” Hood to the Times about the sign’s evolution. “It’s become an iconic element. It lives on.”