For 38 years, Friendship Park was a symbol of amity between Mexico and the United States, despite the fence that separated the two countries and suggested otherwise.
But in 2009, the park that straddled San Diego and Tijuana — where families and friends separated by the fence came to chat, kiss, or graze cheeks — was closed, the casualty of a second fence the U.S. government built to provide an added layer of border security.
Since then, advocates have been pushing to regain access, with only limited success.
But in the last two weeks, they have won their largest concessions yet from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which this summer will begin replacing the primary border fence, now rusted and deteriorating, with a brand new, taller one. The agency has agreed to revise its original designs for the project and allow visitors closer access to the fence over a wider area than originally planned.
Friendship Park, while hardly a park anymore, will be a little friendlier.
“It’s impossible for this park, when it’s finished, to be beautiful. It won’t be,” said Jim Brown, an architect who designed an alternative proposal to the Border Patrol’s, and who, along with a group of advocates, presented it to agency officials. “But it’s going to be a super important symbol amid all this militarization of the border.”
The Border Patrol’s proposal for access to Friendship Park called for not much more than the current setup. Since last year, the agency has allowed limited access to the border fence on Saturdays and Sundays, letting visitors go through a gate in the new outer fence and enter a corral-like area that gets them within a few feet of the primary fence to talk to people on the other side. But it does not allow them to be close enough to touch or kiss.
The agency has agreed to some of Brown’s design proposals, which would allow visitors to walk right up to the fence across about a 100-foot area, depending on whether Border Patrol officials are concerned about a security threat.
To social activists, the reinforced border fence is a symbol of division, enmity, and loved ones torn apart by immigration status. For the Border Patrol and enforcement advocates, it represents security and the containment of illegal crossers and illicit contraband.
Those two perspectives are hard to reconcile, especially amid the constant politicking that surrounds border issues. And if anything, the tug and pull over access to Friendship Park has reaffirmed that notion.
The negotiations have been a give and take. More access in one place has meant more security in another.
The government’s original plan for the new fence, for example, was to build it of thick metal pylons with gaps between them, enough space to stick a hand or an arm through. Visitors on the American side would have to stay behind a shoulder high fence a few feet away, so as to prevent them from passing contraband.
But that dashed advocates’ hope that families and friends could come together to talk up close, to touch, as they’d always done before.
“We wanted people to be able to have more of a private conversation than the public one they would have if they had to talk across a wide gap,” Brown said.
The Border Patrol agreed to allow it. But in exchange, it will build a different kind of fence — a tight mesh one with holes so small that items won’t fit through. The agency also plans to install a canopy overhead that will prevent things from being tossed over.
“Our priorities are a little bit different,” said Kelly Good, the Border Patrol agent who has negotiated the design with advocates. “Our first priority is security of that area, our second priority is the safety of our agents, our third priority is to make this a place where people want to go and visit. Our last priority is their first priority.”
The government’s plan would also only have allowed visitors to approach a section of the border fence roughly 50 feet wide. They would have been contained to that area by a fenced-in corral similar to the one that’s there now.
Advocates wanted to make a wider stretch accessible, so families could spread out. So the agency agreed to do away with the corral.
But it still wanted the ability to restrict access, or grant it, depending on the so-called security threat level on any given day.
On days when threat levels are perceived to be low, visitors might be allowed to spread out across a 100-foot section of the fence. On riskier days, when agents want to keep a close eye on people, they might only allow access to 40 feet. Brown designed an adjustable barrier system similar to the knee-high ropes that keep visitors from getting too close to paintings at museums. Agents will be able to move the ropes depending on how wide a section of the fence they want to make available.
But some things could not be negotiated, like access to the obelisk monument that First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated as a symbol of friendship between the two countries in 1971, as a reassurance that despite the fence, good will remained. The monument currently straddles both sides of the fence, but the Border Patrol’s redesign will leave it on the Mexican side.
That’s because the new fence will not be built directly on the international line. When it replaces the existing one, it will move a few feet north. Visitors standing at the fence on the Mexican side will technically be on United States soil.
The Border Patrol wants to be able to perform maintenance on both sides of the fence. Currently, it can only maintain the American side, because to access the other, agents would have to step on Mexican soil. Moving the fence a few feet to the north will allow them to go through a gate and make needed repairs to the other side without technically entering Mexico.
“We’re the only ones that will maintain it,” Good said, because it is not Mexico’s fence.