Friendship Park on the U.S.-Mexico border has been a unique place for reunions for decades. But the Biden administration might shut it down forever.
On the U.S.-Mexico border, where San Diego ends and Tijuana begins right next to the Pacific Ocean, there’s a place called Friendship Park. It opened over 50 years ago and was meant to be a symbol of the binational community that stretches across the border. Friendship Park eventually became an unlikely place for poignant cross-border reunions.
But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Friendship Park has been shut down. And there’s a good chance it might not reopen. We get into its history and future today. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: San Diego Union-Tribune border reporter Kate Morrissey
Once a symbol of binational unity, Friendship Park could close to cross-border reunions forever
Wall going up in Friendship Park at U.S.-Mexico border
U.S. side of a binational garden at Mexico border bulldozed
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Gustavo: Right on the US-Mexico border, where San Diego ends and Tijuana begins… right next to the Pacific ocean. There's a place called Friendship Park.
Gustavo: It opened over 50 years ago and was meant to be a symbol of the binational community that stretches across the border.
Tape: In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon inaugurated the surrounding area here in the United States. As California’s Border Field State Park. And on that occasion, she and others, uh, dignitaries in Mexico declared that this would be the first phase of what they called international friendship park.
Tape: I do hope that this will be a common beach because we're such good friends with Mexico. We, I don't think we need a border.
Gustavo: But then in the early ‘90s, a huge wall went right through the middle of the park.
Gustavo: And eventually the US built a second wall for reinforcement. Despite the fences though, families and friends separated by the border because of their immigration status, used a park as a place to visit each other. People could at least walk through a gate in one of the fences and press their fingers through the mesh wall of the other border wall to touch their loved ones in what a lot of people called pinky kisses.
Tape: This cross border friendship and family reunion and environmental collaboration are really important. And they can't be left aside in order to put in more militarization and enforcement.
Gustavo: But access to that special meeting place inside Friendship Park has been closed since the pandemic began.
Gustavo: And now with an announcement from the Biden Administration that border wall construction is going to resume in the area.
A lot of people are concerned that the closure of Friendship Park will become permanent.
And family and friends. Won't be able to see each other up close the way they have...for decades.
Tape: We save friendship park once and twice. And I know in my heart of hearts that we will save it again. No matter what it takes. I say si, you say se puede. Si, se puede. Si, se puede. Si, se puede. Si, se puede. We are not going away la migra tomorrow or any day. Siempre, siempre….
Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It's Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022.
Today: could Friendship Park shut down its unique cross-border reunions forever?
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Gustavo: Here to talk about it is Kate Morrissey. She's an immigration reporter at the San Diego Union Tribune. Kate, welcome to THE TIMES.
Kate: Thanks for having me.
Gustavo: I don't think people realize that the massive border wall down there that separates San Diego and Tijuana is relatively recent in the history of the US and Mexico border. What do people who live near Friendship Park tell you about how it was like to live right at the border back in the day before that wall got up?
Kate: Well, what we know from archival footage and documentation that's been happening in the area for some time is there were decades and decades where there was no wall or if there was anything, it was a little, fenced with posts and maybe some barbed wire, but something that you could easily reach over, like that wouldn't even come up to the full torso of an adult person. And so, people have memories of spending a lot of time there in this park and it being a very open space. And I think that is part of why it became Friendship Park, where First Lady Pat Nixon came and, and inaugurated it in the ‘70s as this place that was meant to symbolize the binational relationship of, of the countries, and especially our region.
Tape: It's a great joy to be here and greet all my friends in California and also the friends from Tijuana. A little later, I'm hoping to go right across and shake hands with the friends who are on the other side of the fence and I hope there won't be a fence too long here.
Gustavo: When does that area at Friendship Park, when did it start to see more permanent infrastructure? In other words, bigger walls or fences.
Kate: So San Diego was one of the first regions that really got built up in terms of these border barriers, starting in the ‘90s. And that correlated with this thing called Operation Gatekeeper.
Tape: Coming across this border without the proper authorization is illegal and we're gonna take steps to control illegal immigration.
Kate: // They really started trying to put more border patrol agents on the borderline to try and stop people from making it across.
Tape: With increased support from the Congress, we've acquired substantial resources, such as additional border patrol agents, inspectors and adjudicators, and new technology to track and apprehend violators,
Kate: Trying to add more barriers to stop people from coming across.
Tape: A secure physical barrier. A state-of-the-art fence is an indispensable part of border security reform.
Kate: If you look at the archival photos from the LA Times and the San Diego Union Tribune,back in those times…
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Kate: A lot of people used to cross through the Hills around San Diego, and there was nothing there that prevented that movement, people would come across to stay here or come across to, to work for a while and go back. People would come seasonally and then, go back to their families. And these barriers, these walls really changed the whole dynamic of the region when they started to go up in the ‘90s and then even bigger ones and a second layer, later on in the 2000s.
Tape: People say we should not have a fence. It's something, uh, deeply wrong with that. I don't find anything uh, wrong with that. I always heard the slogan “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Gustavo: When then did Friendship Park become this place of reunions where people would reach through the fence or over the fence and be able to talk and touch each other?
Kate: Well, so the park became Friendship Park in the ‘70s, but in terms of this place where people had to reach through this sort of steel mesh to touch each other's fingers, that would've happened in more recent decades, because the first fencing didn't even go up until the ‘90s. And then what happened in the 2000s was that you actually had a second layer of fence there at Friendship Park so that border patrol controlled access to that park, the entire park is sort of in what border patrol agents call the enforcement zone, which is this space between the primary wall on the secondary. Where they use that area to catch people that are trying to come across. Because they controlled access to it, they could dictate the time of day or days of the week that people could actually come in there. And so then we saw agents saying, okay, well, you can come on the weekends during these set times. And an agent would open a gate in that secondary fence so that people could walk into the enforcement zone and actually still be up at the primary fence. So it's been sort of an evolution over time from people being able to hang out pretty much freely to something where now there's one barrier and then there's two barriers.
Gustavo: How did those reunions over the fence? How would they usually play out? I'm sure you saw more than a few in your time.
Kate: It is a very bittersweet experience.That's the word that sticks with me about what I've seen down there.
Kate: People travel from so far to be able to see their loved ones,
Tape: Friends of Friendship Park video in Spanish.
Kate: The folks who are in the US don't have permission to leave the US and come back, so they can't leave. The folks who are in Mexico don't have permission to cross to the US. And so they'll travel from // all over Mexico or pretty far around the United States. They'll make these big plans to come here, to spend an hour where they can see each other physically or hear each other's voice physically without having to listen through a phone.
Tape: Friends of Friendship Park video in Spanish.
Kate: And even to make the connection of fingertips through the fence. And there's something so very human about wanting to touch your loved one and wanting to be able to be close to them. And having that still kind of denied by this fence. It's a very powerful thing to witness.
Gustavo: That's like the sad irony of Friendship Park. The more militarized it became, the more of a special place it became, even though those reunions, as you said, were bittersweet.
Kate: Yes. I think Friendship Park has become such an iconic part of the San Diego and Tijuana landscape. And so many people have chosen to come to Friendship Park to make statements about what's going on at the border more generally, because it is such an iconic part of our border. It's such a special place. I don't know of another place along the U.S.-Mexico border that looks similarly to friendship park in terms of the way that people travel there to reunite with their loved ones. // And so I think it's a really important and special part of our border because it has that long-standing connection. You know, we have binational parks on the Canadian border as well. They look very different. There's no massive wall there separating people from hanging out, but this is the only one that I know of on the US-Mexico border and to have that here and be able to walk out to it. Sometimes you have to hike out to it. During the week, they don't actually even open the gate for people to drive all the way to where friendship park is because it sits within part of the California State Park called Border Field State Park, and people will hike.
Kate: So you take your journey, your several hour drive, maybe even a flight to get to San Diego, you get to Border Field State Park and then you still have to hike, you know about, I'd say, 40 minutes, to get into where Friendship Park is and people do it. And that is such a special place, like we had, I remember during the Trump administration, you know, Martin Luther King III chose to make the anniversary speech for his father's “I have a dream” speech at Friendship Park, or as close as he could get to it because the gate wasn't open that day…
Tape: Uh this border wall behind me has become a symbol of hate and division. It leads to the separation of children from their parents in dangers border communities and takes the lives of people in search of safety and freedom
Kate: That was where he chose to come and commemorate that piece of history, and the fact that people see its power and, and significance to want to do things like that is really special.It's also, I think, really significant that it's where former Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose to announce the policy that caused family separation at the border.
Tape: I have put in place a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple.
Kate: I was standing right there next to Friendship Park when he started talking about zero tolerance and what that was going to be and, and what that was going to do. And I remember reporters asking, well, what does that mean for families? It has such a history, even just in the last couple years of things that have impacted our whole border and our whole country and, and the whole country of Mexico.
Gustavo: You recently went down there to Friendship Park. What did you see?
Kate: So once we heard that there is forthcoming construction at the park to raise up the border barrier, we decided to go and see what it looks like now. It had been a little while because of the pandemic since the last time I saw it. And so, my colleague and I hiked out to the park and we took the route up by the beach. So you basically just hike a trail out to the beach, and then it's a straight shot up the beach to the Southwestern-most corner of the United States. And as we got there and we started to go up the hill towards where Friendship Park is overlooking the beach, I met Isabelle Aguilar and her mother Yunoi and they were on the phone, standing on the hillside and the woman's mother, so her daughter's grandmother, was in Tijuana on a phone talking with them and it was the first time they had been able to see each other physically in more than a decade.
Tape: Well, in my case, it's been over 13 years since I last saw my grandma. So it was the first time seeing her through the park and it was not what I expected it to be.
Kate: And they were crying, and they were just so emotional being able to see Isabelle's grandmother for the first time in so long. But they were really disappointed that they hadn't been able to actually get closer to each other.
Tape: We thought that at least, like I said, we could touch each other's fingers or something through the bars.
Kate: Isabelle and her mother are both in the process of getting green cards. They’re now far enough along in that process where they felt it was safe to travel to the park. Because it’s true that, in coming to the park, people are exposing themselves to border patrol agents. So a lot of times the folks who end up coming from the US side will be people who are sort of in these limbo statuses where they have some amount of protection from immediate deportation or being threatened with immigration court dates against them. But they don’t have their full status yet. They’re in these limbo spaces. And with our wonky immigration laws there are actually a lot of ways to end up in those kinds of statuses and some people stay there permanently, in these limbo status. For Isabella and her mother, it sounds like, are on a path to be able to get green cards. Once they have those, they’ll be able to cross South to Mexico and come back. But the concern is that Isabelle’s grandmother is getting older and is not doing terribly well. She has several medical conditions. And so, they’re very worried about her health and they’re worried that if they waited until the full green card process is done, that it might be too late. And they organized this whole big trip. She took a bus to the airport and flew to Tijuana herself and they drove several hours down from where they live to the border. In hopes of seeing each other. And even with all that organizing and planning, it was still really difficult for them because at the end of the day, they were still talking to each other on a phone because they couldn't get into Friendship Park itself.
Gustavo: More on Friendship Park, after the break.
Gustavo: Kate, as we mentioned before, Friendship Park is right now, temporarily closed. People can't reach each other the way they used to. And I'd imagined that people understood that a temporary closure was probably for the better during the COVID-19 pandemic, but probably no one would've believed that would be a possible permanent closure. So why is a Biden administration looking into that type of complete shutdown?
Kate: Well, I think what we're seeing now is a continuation of restrictions that have been placed on the park over the years. So, it's not the first time that Border Patrol or, or an administration, has taken a step to sort of shorten the access or restrict the access to Friendship Park. And so // speaking with advocates who have dedicated themselves to trying to keep the spirit of Friendship Park alive, // they see this as the next in what has been sort of a longstanding path to restricting that access.
Tape: Uh, when they brought in the first wall back in 2009, they put a door in the wall, uh, with a lot of promises that there would be a lot of access or eventually, um, but instead there was just a small amount of access and that access was ratcheted down to nothing.
Kate: Whether it's saying that only 10 people can be inside at a time, limiting someone's visit to 30 minutes, we've seen a lot of different rules coming through over the years. And so when it closed for the pandemic, there were a lot of questions about, well, when will it reopen, when will it reopen? And at first Border Patrol said that it would reopen when the state park reopened, because as you may remember, state parks closed for a while during the pandemic as well. And Friendship Park initially closed, as the state park that, that holds it closed. When the state park reopened, Friendship Park remained closed. And I think that was the first indication that there might be something different going on. and the border patrol has said that it's because they don't have the resources to staff the park. But they haven't really given an answer on when or how they will be able to make that change. Then we started to hear that the Biden administration was restarting some of these wall construction projects that were paused at the beginning when President Joe Biden came into office. And Friendship Park was one of the places where this was going to happen. And so these advocates who, like I said, have been really trying to keep Friendship Park around, met with border patrol and asked if there were plans to have pedestrian gates still to be able to access the park.
Tape: Uh, and They originally told us that there would be no access whatsoever for the public. Um, Since the pressure has been put on, um, there's been talk about a possible door in the wall… um,
Kate: And they were told that those gates were not in the plans. When I followed up with Border Patrol, Border Patrol said that they would have more information about gates coming in the future, but it was a very vague statement. And, you know, we don't really know what that means, or if that means that they are going to end up adding these pedestrian gates. And so now there is this really big fear in our community here that the US side of Friendship Park is no longer going to be accessible at all.
Tape: So today my heart is heavy yet again, because it doesn't matter if it's a Democratic or Republican administration. Friendship Park, Friendship Park, the word and we fought so hard, John, to make sure that they called it friendship park for a long time. They said, no, it's Border Field, it's Friendship Park., el parque de amistad.
Kate: And I think it's important to emphasize that it's the US side, because half of Friendship Park is in Mexico and so that side is very accessible. There's bands playing and people at the beach and vendors with food and drinks and restaurants nearby. And there's art all over that side of the wall. But the US side is very barren in comparison, there's the fences and the Border Patrol agents. And that's about it.
Gustavo: What sort of political pushback has there been against the possible closure of Friendship Park?
Kate: At first, we heard from politicians whose districts include that part of the border. So in Congress that would be Representative Juan Vargas. And then we also also heard from state Senator Ben Hueso and the two of them pretty quickly pushed back on the Biden administration and called for protection of the park, preservation of the park, and really emphasized how important the park is to our binational community here in the San Diego-Tijuana region. And then more recently, Vargas actually organized a letter with 15 members of Congress and those folks are from across the country, a lot of them are concentrated here in California, particularly in the San Diego area. You know you have Representative Scott Peters, Sarah Jacobs, Mike Levin, but then you also have members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and some other folks from different border states chiming in as well on this letter. And so we are starting to see an increase in awareness in the political community and an increase in pushback on the Biden administration, particularly among fellow Democrats–which is always a really interesting dynamic–but what I think is too soon to say is how much this political pressure could have an impact, or could change the outcome. There’s a lot of grassroots organizing, but so far things still seem to be moving forward and we don’t know yet if there’s going to be any change in decision-making.
Gustavo: More after the break
Gustavo: So Kate, who's organizing then? We talked about the political pushback. What about the community pushback?
Kate: So there's this group called Friends of Friendship Park.
Tape: Good morning, I'm uh, John Fanestil. So last night, a delegation from the Friends of Friendship Park met with US border patrol officials…
Kate: That's a collective of people who really celebrate Friendship Park’s sort of binational aspirations and what it could mean to have a park that is fully open to the public, that is a binational park.
Tape: if the project moves forward as planned, we fear that, uh, President Biden will be known as the president who put the finishing touches on Donald Trump's border wall. And so we will be, um, Moving forward with our own, uh, plans here to advance, uh, our defense of Friendship Park.
Kate: And, you know, They've organized different events there over the years. I've seen binational yoga held at the park. I've seen Christmas posada held at the park.
Kate:where you have people sitting on each side and celebrating. They have mass on Sundays. And all of this is them really trying to keep the spirit of the park alive.
Tape: And so we will be, um, Moving forward with our own, uh, plans here to advance, uh, our defense of Friendship Park.
Kate: At one point they installed a binational garden which has native plants that go in these concentric circles from the Tijuana through the San Diego side. and some of those plants were actually at one point taken out a few years ago on the us side, again, with all of this, this planned construction, and there was pushback
Tape: These plants that are here have root systems up to 30 feet deep. And so, you know, all the climatologists are saying not if, but when there's gonna be torrential rains. And if there's no native flora on the hillsides, all the houses, all everything, there's gonna be massive erosion. And I don't care how many walls you have here. It's not gonna help us.
Kate: I think that issue has been settled, but there's concern now that, when they come through to put these higher barriers up, the binational garden will be destroyed. There's also a big question about what's going to happen to all of the art. Like I said on the Tijuana side, there are murals just covering every inch of that part of the border wall. And I haven't heard any plans about what might happen to it if that fencing is replaced.
Gustavo: if it does happen, what would families like the Aguilars do?
Kate: Well, I think what we saw when we went and spent time with the Aguilars there on the hill is about as close as anyone would be able to get the barriers already go all the way into the ocean. And so there's no way to get closer to each other while the park is closed.
Kate: So it means that they won't be able to hear their loved one's voices in person. Even if they're looking at each other, they're still gonna have to be on the phone. You know, I interviewed another family that ended up having to do a video call because the loved one in Mexico's eyes were not very good because they're also someone who's getting older and they, we're still using these digital devices and, and technology to try to be with each other, even though they were, maybe 100 feet apart.
Kate: if it wasn't bittersweet enough already with being, just touching fingers through the fence, I think it just amplifies the bitter side of that bittersweet feeling.
Tape: Love has no borders and what we’re able to witness here is something spectacular.
Gustavo: Kate, thank you so much for this conversation.
Kate: Thanks for having me.
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Gustavo: That's it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. Surya Hendry and David Toledo were the jefas on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it.
Our shows’ produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalin, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morland. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilerra and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I’m Gustavo Arellano. We’ll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.
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