‘Desecration’: Biden administration to expand walls at historic border meeting point

Show caption Two women take part in a weekly bi-national service led by the Border church at Friendship Park in Tijuana, Mexico, in April. Photograph: Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters US immigration ‘Desecration’: Biden administration to expand walls at historic border meeting point For half a century, families living on both sides of the border have reunited at Friendship Park. Now 30ft walls threaten the experience Paulina Velasco in San Diego Tue 26 Jul 2022 22.59 BST Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

Dan Watman had travelled an hour and a half to end up just 200ft from his own home.

Watman had come to the American side of Friendship Park, a binational park on the western end of the US-Mexico border where for decades families have met to connect with relatives, to talk about the local native flora in the public garden he runs there.

Through the two walls securing the border, he could see his house in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. But crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego could take him between 90 minutes and four hours.

“The root systems for some of the native plants in this area are as deep as 30 feet,” Watman said, talking over the sounds of live music from the food festival happening on the other side of the border in Tijuana. He pointed at a toyon bush, the biggest plant in the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants. “There’s probably roots on both sides,” he said with a chuckle.

In San Diego, Daniel Watman reviews plants in a pickup truck before driving to Friendship Park in early 2020. Photograph: Elliot Spagat/AP

In January 2020, Watman, second from left, speaks with volunteers as he holds the first plant to be put in the ground after the border patrol bulldozed a patch in Friendship Park. Photograph: Elliot Spagat/AP

Watman is a longtime member of Friends of Friendship Park, a coalition that includes environmentalists, developers and immigrant rights activists advocating for public access to the historic border park. This month, the group announced it had learned that the US homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, had approved plans to replace the two existing walls with new ones that will be as tall as the roots of his plants are deep.

The new 30ft structures would extend walls stretching east that were built during the Trump administration, the group said, despite a campaign promise from Joe Biden to halt any new construction of the border wall. The new walls, the advocates warned, could further limit public access to the park, restricting visits to Watman’s garden or the wall.

Watman was surprised at the Biden administration’s reversal, he said, but not at there being a new challenge to Friendship Park. “It’s not surprising given what I’ve seen and how things have gradually closed down more and more over the last 15 years. But it’s really disappointing.”

A half-century of history

Friendship Park was established more than 50 years ago by the then first lady, Pat Nixon, who inaugurated Border Field state park and gave the park’s corner its name by saying it was the beginning of the creation of an “international friendship park”.

For a while, the only marker of the border here was a rope, barbed wire and then a chain-link fence. Families living in both countries would come together for picnics at the park. In 1988, a local couple got married there. It was a spot for families separated by the border to introduce US children to their grandparents in Mexico.

Pat Nixon greets people at the dedication of Friendship Park in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, in 1971. Photograph: US National Archives and Records Administration/AP

Watman organized his first cross-border cultural exchange event in the early 2000s. He invited volunteer lifeguards in Tijuana and students from a community college in San Diego to meet at the beach in Friendship Park. Each group showed up with prejudices about what the other group would be like, he recalled. “But all those ideas melted away when they got to know each other through the fence. It was almost like the fence motivated them to want to get to know each other more, to kind of transcend that barrier,” he said.

It would be the first of many experiences. Later came yoga classes, salsa dancing lessons, poetry readings and, eventually, the garden. “I decided trying to get people to make friends across borders was going to be my contribution to a better world,” he said.

Watman has tended the garden for years, even as security alongside the border was tightened. By 2011, two walls had been built, one bollard-style wall closer to Mexico and one white fence with thinner slats closer to the US. Friendship Park was squeezed between the two. The Friends of Friendship Park negotiated with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to include a pedestrian gate that would allow access to this no man’s land. Through it, visitors could get close to the three spots that make up Friendship Park today: the Binational Garden, the Monument erected as a boundary marker after the US-Mexico war, and a small, undeveloped beach.

Robert Vivar, another Friends of Friendship Park leader, first visited the park in 2014, after he was deported from the US to Mexico.

He was struggling with depression and anxiety, living in a country he hadn’t lived in since he was six. “I was kind of lost. I was not sure of what was going to happen to my life. So I started searching for something,” he recalled. His search led him to volunteer at various organisations, including one for deported veterans, and at the Border church, a binational communion service held at the Monument.

A couple dances on the beaches of Tijuana last year as part of the 50th anniversary of the park. Photograph: Joebeth Terríquez/EPA

“At first it was very difficult for me to go to Friendship Park. I could not look over the border wall into San Diego; it was too painful.” But he kept going, he said. Every Sunday he’d show up early, help unload chairs, set up the sound system and translate when needed.

“Something started happening within me that this despair, this anxiety, this depression, that I was living with every day, was subsiding. The more I got involved, the lesser the pain.”

Like the binational garden, the Border church went through many iterations. When US participants were allowed through the pedestrian gate, they’d meet next to the Monument. That section of wall has mesh siding big enough for a pinkie finger to poke through and people would touch pinkies during the Rite of Peace. Then they would be allowed to stroll down a designated path to the garden, where people could see their loved ones more clearly across the bollard fence. Vivar remembers one time his own son and two granddaughters met him at the wall. It “elevated the hope-meter”, he said.

In 2019, Vivar said, the Border church invited members of the local Muslim community to celebrate what he called Border mosque. The US representative Rashida Tlaib attended. “From Palestine to Mexico, these walls must go,” Vivar recalled her saying. And, he added: “It’s true, they must go. But not only the physical barriers, the barriers in our heart. If we can get rid of those, the physical ones will follow with no problem.”

Watching families come together across the wall over the years had been bittersweet, Vivar said, and he began looking forward to being permanently reunited with his own loved ones. This finally happened when he was allowed back into the US in 2021, on Veteran’s Day.

‘There’s no reason for the walls’

In 2020, access to Friendship Park was shut down and the pedestrian gate was closed. Since then, a US border patrol truck has been parked in front of it, ready to sound its siren if anyone gets too close. Vehicle access to this corner of Border Field state park is now only available on the weekends. During the week, visitors have to walk 1.5 miles from the park entrance.

The documentary photographer Maria Teresa Fernandez positions a T-shirt reading ‘Open Friendship Park’ into two barrier cones at Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, California, in November 2021. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Watman hasn’t been allowed to tend to the garden on the US side, and it’s become dry and overgrown. On the Mexican side, he and his team of volunteers have cultivated flourishing local plants, established food beds and organised educational events. “The Kumeyaay people were coming here for 8,000 years, and this border’s been here for 170 or something, like a blink of an eye … So we’ve had native plant workshops where we invited Kumeyaay elders to the garden,” Watman said.

The activists worry the new stretches of fence could curtail access even further. In a statement earlier this month, they said officials with CBP had said the new walls would not include a pedestrian gate.

In a statement to the Guardian, CBP said the agency recognized the value of having a safe meeting space on both sides of the border. “Upon completion of the San Diego Friendship Circle project, including the replacement of a secondary barrier with a pedestrian gate in this area, we will identify opportunities to provide the public with access once it is operationally safe to do so. While these opportunities will continue to need to be based on other US border patrol operational requirements, the replacement construction project will not be an impediment to potential opportunities for future access in this location,” the agency said.

Friendship Circle refers to the area around the Monument, but not the binational garden, Watman said.

US border patrol police on horseback monitor the US-Mexico border fence near the park. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Mass-goers in Tijuana, Mexico, gather to listen as Pastor Seth Clark leads a weekly Sunday Mass for a congregation on the Mexico side of the park. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Even if the new plans do include a gate, he added, there’s no guarantee that it will be open, and no way for the community to negotiate its access to this public land: “A gate is not a park.”

The plan “desecrates the aesthetic of the park, desecrates it completely”, said Vivar. “There’s no reason for two 30-foot walls.”

Friends of Friendship Park is asking CBP to pause construction until the organizations meet on 27 July. “It’s very important that the public, the stakeholders, have input as to what’s going on in the park,” said Vivar. “Border walls or not, we’re one community. And people on both sides of the border, there might be a fence to divide us, but the fences in our heart are being broken down every day. And they’re not going to stop us from having that relationship.”

Watman said there was not much that ccould stop him from showing up at the garden, either. “It would be much more likely that I would stop if the walls came down than if the walls keep getting bigger. As long as there’s walls here and the US border policy only includes enforcement, there needs to be someone pushing for the other aspect that also is part of security, like cross-border friendship.”