June 1, 2009
by Leslie Berestein
SOUTH COUNTY — Less than five months after federal officials pulled the plug on public access through a new border fence to a historic monument at Border Field State Park, the possibility is back on the table.
Speaking at a luncheon in downtown San Diego last week, Homeland Security border czar Alan Bersin told the audience that immigrant-rights groups have been discussing prospects for public access with department officials.
“It is a dialogue under way,” said Bersin, who was recently named the department's assistant secretary for international affairs.
In January, two weeks before the Obama administration took office, U.S. Border Patrol officials announced a decision to permanently close access to a popular cross-border meeting spot within the state park, where a marble obelisk dating to 1851 marks the U.S.-Mexico border.
Until late last year, the area surrounding the monument – accommodated within a cutout in the steel mesh fence separating the two countries – was easily accessible. On weekends, it was common for U.S. visitors with family in Baja California to bring picnics and chairs to the area, known as Friendship Park, and spend the day chatting with relatives through the fence.
The area was declared off-limits in December, shortly before construction began on a secondary fence through Border Field State Park. That barrier, which is mostly completed, is north of and runs parallel to the main border fence. State and federal officials discussed public access to the monument, and until January there were tentative plans to allow visitors to use a gate in the secondary fence to get to a 40-foot-wide space that flanks the obelisk.
This changed after local Border Patrol officials concluded it would be too difficult for agents to monitor a public gathering place between the two fences. At the time, an agency official in Washington, D.C., said that while visitors frequently pass innocuous items such as food back and forth through small openings in the fence, they could also pass fraudulent documents or drugs.
Bersin said last week that while security would not be compromised, the idea is to rethink the access issue in hopes of being able to have both security and controlled interaction.
On Friday, a Homeland Security spokesman said the only thing that has changed so far is that the discussion is back on.
“This certainly doesn't mean a shift in policy. It is simply dialogue,” agency spokesman Matthew Chandler said. “It is about senior Border Patrol leadership continuing a dialogue with local stakeholders.”
Since the decision was made to bar public access, a coalition of local community, immigrant-rights, environmental and religious groups have lobbied federal officials and policy makers to reconsider.
John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister and one of several local proponents of maintaining public access to Friendship Park, promoted the issue in Washington, D.C., last month. He and other Southwest border activists traveled there to show support of legislation that would require the government to adhere to environmental laws when considering border security.
Last week, Fanestil was at the luncheon where Bersin spoke, and Fanestil said he was encouraged by Bersin's comments.
“I was really pleased, as you can imagine,” Fanestil said. “Our suspicion is that this decision was taken in haste, and that over time, what we think of as a saner view of things will prevail. They are perfectly capable of controlling the public at that venue.”
Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-affiliated human rights group that has also lobbied to preserve visitor access, said there have been a series of informal talks with policymakers and federal officials over the past few months. He said a formal meeting to discuss access is in the works.
However, access to the monument and the fence could be compromised by the state budget crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting more $213 million from state parks over the next two fiscal years, resulting in the possible shutdown of more than 200 state parks, among them Border Field.
The park has been closed to vehicles since winter rains caused flooding but has remained open to hikers and equestrians. Park Superintendent Clay Phillips said vehicle access should be restored within the next few weeks.