April 14, 2011
by Beth Elderkin
A possible redesign of Friendship Park, a small patch of land separated by two eight-foot high black metal fences on the national border between San Diego, Calif. and Tijuana, Mexico, has become the center of a heated international debate.
Dedicated in 1971 to bi-national unity between the United States and Mexico by former first lady Pat Nixon, the small section of protected Border Field State Park is officially referred to as Friendship Circle, but more commonly known as Friendship Park.The area has sparked tense cross-border conflicts between groups who wish to open the park for full bi-national access, and U.S. Border patrol, which prioritizes national security.
Over the past five years, increased security by the United States Border Patrol has restricted park access to U.S. residents and limited cross-cultural contact.
But after years of cross-cultural tension, a compromise on a redesign of the park appears to be within reach. In February, Border Patrol agreed to consider a design that would create more open spaces, but still serve security needs.
"(The redesign) doesn't make the park feel like you're walking into a prison," said Jill Holslin, a member of Friends of Friendship Park, one of the groups advocating more open space.
Friendship Park was once a frequently-visited spot by people living in the U.S. who wanted to communicate with friends and family in Mexico. People gathered on both sides of the fence to share picnics, sometimes even “sneaking tamales across the fence,” Holslin said.
A 1994 measure limited access to the border fence, but it wasn't until 2006 that Friendship Park was severely impacted. That's when Pres. George W. Bush approved the Secure Fence Act, which increased border security and initialized the construction of a secondary fence. That fence, completed in 2009, was built about 100 feet away from the original border fence, creating a buffer space that prohibits cross-border access from Friendship Park, which lies between the two fences.
“[Before], it was minimal problems or obstacles as far as border patrol or access to the area,” said Daniel Watman of Border Encuentro, which is fighting for increased park access. “When they started bringing in the secondary wall, that’s when it created quite an obstacle for us.”
Ever since the secondary fence was completed, access to the main park area is only allowed on the weekends between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and only 25 to 30 people are allowed inside at a time, for a maximum of 30 minutes. Friendship Park is reachable through Border Field State Park by car, or via a 40-minute walk along Imperial Beach.
Physical contact is prohibited and border patrol officers have the option to restrain suspicious people within 100 feet of the fence. Border patrol agent Ronnie Harden said the primary reason is to prevent items from being passed through the slats and over the fence.
“It’s so easy for them to pass things that are contraband or things that can be used on either side, like illegal documents,” he said.
Park access advocacy groups, including Friends of Friendship Park, No Border Wall and Border Encuentro, are working for increased access to the park, particularly for people who want to communicate with family and friends on the other side of the border fence.
According to Border Patrol Public Affairs Office supervisor Steven Pitts, the park redesign, if approved, could begin construction as early as June, and would take approximately three to six months to complete.
The changes to Friendship Park could include an area around the boundary that could expand to up to 60 feet, depending on the size of the crowd at any given event, Watman said.
The idea of this is “to open up the entrance to this kind of no-man’s land between the two lands,” said Public Art and Architecture architect and Friendship Park designer James Brown.
U.S. visitors would be able to walk right up to the fence and interact with those on the other side. This would be made possible through a metal reinforced mesh fence. The mesh would be tight enough to make physical contact impossible, said Border Patrol Public Affairs Office representative Justin De La Torre.
Harden, who works the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, said the secondary fence and added border security is necessary to the safety of the U.S. national border; especially late at night when illegal border crossings are more likely to occur.
“People who cross at this time of night aren’t trying to see their families. They’re trying to get somewhere,” he said.
Holslin agrees that cross-border security is important in maintaining order along the border:
“We are not working against the Border Patrol," she said. "We want to work with them"
Holslin said increasing park access could actually help improve security along the border, since a higher number of visitors would prevent drug cartels from overtaking the area and increasing crime.
Watman said a redesigned Friendship Park is a way to not only maintain a safe environment, but do so in a way that symbolizes the bi-national friendship former first lady Nixon celebrated 40 years ago.
“I don’t feel like it’s enforcement versus friendship. I believe they both can be present,” he said. “They kind of both need to be present.”