New barrier to limit families' socializing
San Diego Union-Tribune
September 24, 2008
It was like any seaside picnic, with family members sitting on folding chairs, colorful umbrellas and a cooler full of sodas. The only unusual thing was the steel mesh fence running through the middle of it.
On a recent Sunday, the Sotomayor family of Riverside rose early, packed a lunch and drove south to Border Field State Park, where the fence that separates the United States from Mexico meets the ocean.
As many Mexican-American families have done for years, they were there to spend the day with relatives unable to legally cross north to hug them and must be content to visit at the see-through fence.
This binational social scene, as it exists now, is unique along the southern border of the United States. Soon, it will be a memory.
The federal government's effort to slam the door on illegal immigration, drug smuggling and the threat of terrorism means a new secondary fence will be built in the park, creating a 90-foot-wide no-man's land of patrol roads and security lights that extends to the sea.
Construction is to begin next month. The barrier will not be solid, but it will block most access to the primary fence, which is composed chiefly of loosely spaced metal pilings on the beach and mesh on the bluff above.
Federal officials said a gate in the new fence will allow visitors to reach the 1851 border monument that marks the point where the United States and Mexico agreed on a common border after the Mexican-American War. The worn marble obelisk is accommodated by a cutout in the fence.
Access details to a roughly 40-foot-wide space surrounding the monument are being worked out between federal and state officials. When the gate is closed, visitors will still be able to see into Mexico, but any socializing will be limited to waving from a distance.
The construction, which involves installing a 15-foot-high picket-style fence that runs the length of the park, is part of a $60 million federal project that includes filling in Smuggler's Gulch, a deep canyon to the east.
The idea to close gaps in a 14-mile section of secondary fence running inland from the ocean is part of a national security plan that has been in the works since the mid-1990s, said Angela de Rocha, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman. The project is not affected by a budget shortfall that could derail more recently authorized fencing along the southern border.
Work in the park has begun. Visitors once could set up their chairs along the fence on the beach or on a dirt strip between the fence and the parking lot. Recently installed plastic mesh blocks access to all but the monument area and the lower section on the sand.
The monument's history dates to shortly after the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which Mexico ceded what is now the southwestern United States to its northern neighbor after the war. According to the Web site for Border Field State Park, delegations from both countries began surveying the boundary at this location in 1850, and the monument was erected shortly afterward.
The marble spire became so popular that bits were chipped off as souvenirs; according to state parks officials, it had to be reshaped and re-installed in 1894. The area was dedicated as a state park in 1971, acquiring the nickname “Friendship Park” along the way.
While a few informal meeting spots exist along the southern border, Border Field State Park is unique in that it is a refuge within an urban area where people can park their cars, pull a chair to the fence and spend the day with relatives and friends on the south side.
“It's like a day in the country, a picnic. Only they are there, and we are here,” said José Sotomayor, 38, holding his 2-year-old son while his wife chatted through the fence with her mother and siblings, who had driven north from Ensenada.
The location also is a rendezvous spot for people who have organized cross-border events ranging from protests to salsa classes.
Other visiting spots include the communities of Sunland Park, N.M., and Anapra, Mexico, where an annual binational Mass is held at the steel mesh fence; the twin East County-Baja California towns of Jacumba and Jacume; and the fence by the port of entry separating downtown Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Mexico.
Jacumba locals say that tight security now bars most social interaction. In New Mexico, the fence abuts a patrol road, which makes sitting and talking difficult. In Nogales, Ariz., the steel mesh is flanked by sidewalks, port officials say, and most conversation is limited to brief exchanges between shoppers on the north side and relatives waiting on the south.
The appeal of a meeting place such as Border Field State Park is strongest for those who can't travel to Mexico to see family, either because they are in the process of adjusting their immigration status or because they are undocumented.
Sitting a few feet from the Sotomayor family, members of the Vera family of El Monte, a Los Angeles suburb, included two sons who are U.S. citizens; the father, who is a legal resident; and the mother, who is in the process of being sponsored for residency by her husband. Her status prohibits her from leaving the country.
“In our case, it doesn't matter if there is a fence,” said Armando Vera, 42, of himself and his sons. “But my wife can't travel. She has to wait another two years.”
The family makes regular trips to the fence to see Leticia Vera's mother, who lives in Tijuana. In the time they have traveled to the fence, they have noticed several changes. Holes in the fence have been fixed, they said, and border agents have become stricter about visitors passing food through the barrier.
“We learned today that we can't even give each other a soda,” said Leticia Vera, 42. “Before, we could reach through the fence and hug each other.”
The Border Patrol has set up a checkpoint near the park entrance. Agent Jason Rodgers said that in spite of existing fencing and patrols, human and drug smuggling still occurs in the area.
“Obviously, we value family unity,” Rodgers said. “However, our priority here is the safety and security of our nation's borders, and this fencing, in that regard, is a piece of the puzzle.”
The fence plan has drawn complaints from several U.S.-based environmental, immigrant-rights, border friendship and religious groups.
“It's going to kind of scare people away,” said Daniel Watman, a Spanish teacher and organizer of Border Meetup, which has conducted yoga, surfing and other events at the fence to promote cultural interaction. “When they see the Border Patrol checking IDs, and all of a sudden there is a 20-foot wall, people are going to say, 'Nah, why bother.' ”
Although some have been meeting at the fence for years, the Sotomayor family learned about Border Field State Park recently. They were making their second visit. Both José Sotomayor and his wife, Rosa Cobian, are awaiting their green cards and can't travel out of the country.
On the south side of the fence, Cobian's mother, Cecilia Nuñez, reveled in getting to know her four grandchildren, whom she only knew through photographs until recently. She hoped the new fence wouldn't get in the way of afternoons like these.
“I'd like to have better communication with them,” said Nuñez, 67, as toddler Jesse giggled on the other side of the mesh, a yard or so away. “I hope we can still keep seeing each other.”