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On Thursday, Sept 18, Border Meet-up Director Dan Watman was detained by the Border Patrol in Friendship Park, a small concrete plaza up against the border fence in Border Field State Park, the site where the U.S.-Mexico border fence descends into the ocean. Watman was conducting a press conference in preparation for a two-day bi-national event scheduled for the following weekend, Sept 20-21, to include a beach clean up, kite flying festival, cross-border yoga and mediation at Playas de Tijuana and Border Field State Park. His crime? One of the five Mexican journalists who joined Watman at the border fence for the press conference passed Dan his business card through the fence. According to the border patrol, the passage of unregulated goods through the border fence constitutes a customs violation. Yet, if Dan Watman’s actions truly constituted a crime, why was he not arrested? While it is easy to read this situation through the familiar narrative of the innocent man victimized by an abuse of state power, are we being fair to the border patrol when we portray them as “bad cop?”

Well, it turns out that federal laws governing what can and cannot be done at the border fence are not entirely clear. Indeed, as anyone knows who has tried to cross back across the border into the U.S. with an unregulated American granny smith apple in their backpack, the passage of “unregulated goods” from Mexico to the U.S. is expressly forbidden. Yet, other activities at the border fence subject the innocent wayfarer to arbitrary and random questioning, harassment and detention.

When Dan Watman reached out and took the journalist’s business card that had been slipped though an opening in the border fence that day, the border patrol agent on the scene was prompted to enforce this policy forbidding unregulated goods. As Watman noted in an official statement, the agent asked to see what had been passed through the fence and Watman complied, showing him the business card. The agent then asked Dan to step away from the fence. Dan asked why he needed to do that: as far as he understood, it was not illegal to talk to people at the fence. Then Watman explained further that he was conducting a press conference and so needed to remain within conversational distance with the journalists gathered on the other side. At this point, the situation escalated, the border patrol agent threatened Watman with arrest if he refused again to step away from the fence.

In an effort to clarify the law, Dan pointed to the contradictory situation in progress: “I told him that he could arrest me right where I was for passing something through the fence. And so, why if I stepped away would I no longer be arrested?” The agent then asked Watman to place his hands on his head and remain silent, and Watman was then detained while three additional border patrol vehicles and 8-10 agents arrived on the scene. When Watman asked again why he was being asked to step away from the fence, one of the agents acknowledged that Watman had done nothing illegal in gathering with a group at the fence: “You are right, you have a right to be here you just can’t pass things through the fence.”  After 20 minutes, the agents left and Dan Watman, undaunted, continued on with his press conference.

What Dan Watman’s brief detention, and many others like it illustrate, is that enforcement at the border fence can be random and arbitrary, raising questions about the shaky legal foundations of our basic civil rights. In an effort to clarify the law regarding gatherings at Friendship Park, I recently spoke to Mark Endicott, Public Affairs liaison for the San Diego Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. When I asked him if there was an explicit policy preventing people from standing next to the border fence and chatting with people in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Endicott affirmed that as a public park, its purpose was to allow people to gather and enjoy themselves, and there was no policy preventing that. Endicott added that he had heard of no instances of agents telling people to stand away from the fence.

Yet, such instances are commonplace in Border Field State Park. I myself have been interrupted mid-conversation and asked to step away from the fence on at least three different occasions by border patrol agents who then explained that it was easier to do their job if I wasn’t talking to people through the fence. According to Christian Ramirez, National Coordinator of Project VOICE, the American Friends Service Committee immigrant rights initiative, there has recently been a significant number of complaints about random detentions from the ranches out near Border Field State Park. And so, this left me wondering once again, what exactly is the law in this case?

— JILL HOLSLIN

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