Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Friendship Park in dispute over border fence

North Country Times
December 31, 2008

Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach has long been a meeting place for people separated by the nation's immigration laws, but a new fence being built on the U.S.-Mexico border site threatens to end that tradition, local human rights advocates say.

A group of elected officials recently joined an effort by those advocates to halt construction of the fence in that area.But immigration officials and other local lawmakers say the new barrier is needed to keep smugglers from exploiting the aging and deteriorating steel fence.

"Halting the construction of infrastructure at the park would only make the area more difficult to manage," said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon. "This project ... is an important part of our efforts to control the border."

The plaza and an obelisk monument on the border were dedicated in 1971 by then-first lady Patricia Nixon as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. The plaza sits on a mesa overlooking the beach, called Monument Mesa, which is the southwestern most part of the U.S.-Mexico border.

On the Mexican side of the border, there is a bullring called Plaza Monumental de Toros and a lighthouse.Within the park there is a half-acre plaza called "Friendship Park" where family and friends who are unable to travel across the border meet to talk and visit. They often exchange caresses and kisses through holes cut in the steel-mesh and chain-link fence.

For some people, it is the only safe and legal way to see and touch their loved ones. A secondary fence will create an empty space between the two barriers that could prevent those exchanges in the future, human rights activists say.

U.S. Border Patrol officials say they plan to build a gate on the second fence that would allow people to continue meeting each other. The gate would be open and watched by Border Patrol agents during the day and closed at night, but the design has not been finalized.The secondary fence will create a no-man's land between the two barriers that immigration authorities say is intended to prevent or slow illegal crossings.

In April, the Bush administration waived more than 30 environmental laws and regulations to finish building 670 miles of fence along the Southwest U.S. border, including the segment at Friendship Park and another a few miles east in an area called Smuggler's Gulch.

Michael Fisher, chief of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, said in an interview last month that the department is looking at various designs for a gate that would allow people to continue visiting each other across the border at Friendship Park during certain times of the day.

But some critics said the agency should allow people to participate in the design process.

"We need to ensure Friendship Park lives up to its name, a place that fosters human relations in spite of fences, where families can share meals and greet each other," said John Fanestil, executive director of the Foundation for Change, a San Diego-based activist group that promotes human rights.

Human and immigrant rights groups, including the American Friends Service Committee and the Border Angels, have organized several protests in recent months at the park calling attention to the new fence.

Last month, a group of local elected officials joined them, co-signing a letter to Barack Obama's presidential transition team asking for construction to stop.The group included Reps. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, and Susan Davis, D-San Diego; state Sens. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, and Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego; San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye; and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, among others.

"Direction to DHS (Department of Homeland Security) contractors halting all border fence construction on (Friendship Park) would send a powerful message to the peoples of the U.S.-Mexico border region," according to the letter. "It would also give new staff at DHS time to solicit new proposals for the redesign of security measures that will ensure continued public access to Friendship Park."

Border Patrol officials, who have a station near the park and watch the park on a regular basis, said that while much of what happens there are innocent family gatherings, there are those who try to take advantage of the gaps in the border.

In some segments of the fence, the barrier has been cut and repaired so many times that it has become ineffective at stopping illegal activity, including smuggling drugs, officials say.

"I fully respect what goes on in that park. It's unique because it is somewhat open," Fisher said. "Unfortunately, the smugglers exploit that as well. We have documented cases where people are selling false documents through the fence. They are selling drugs through the fence. They are smuggling people and babies through the area."

A spokesman for Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, said the new fence is needed and should not be stopped. Bilbray, who served as mayor of Imperial Beach in the 1980s, has been a long-standing advocate for building a border fence in San Diego County.

"Seems like everyone is looking for an excuse not to build the (new) fence," Bilbray spokesman Kurt Bardella said. "National security is something that should never be compromised."

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a North Carolina-based group that advocates for stricter immigration controls, said critics of the border fence simply do not want immigration enforcement.

"They don't want borders," Gheen said. "That's why we call them the open-border lobby."

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