Wall going up in Friendship Park at U.S.-Mexico border
Plans to construct two 30-foot border barriers through historic Friendship Park that runs between Imperial Beach and Tijuana will continue, despite objections of local community groups and more than a dozen members of Congress.
The groups and congressional leaders are urging the U.S. Border Patrol to pause construction of new border walls for 120 days, so the plans can be better evaluated and the public can understand the potential impact of the new structures.
During a meeting Wednesday, officials with the Border Patrol told San Diego County community activists the agency would continue as planned with reinforcing the current border structures that separate Imperial Beach from Playas de Tijuana, but they would take the request to pause construction to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The Friends of Friendship Park Coalition, a collective that advocates for access to the park, say their group was told they would be able to look at schematic plans for the construction during Wednesday’s meeting, but instead were shown only renderings.
“These two 30-foot walls extended across the face of this historic location will change the face of Friendship Park for decades to come,” said John Fanestil of the coalition. “It represents in our view a desecration of a historic location on the U.S.-Mexico border. It will discourage public use of this space in the United States. And in our view, if completed, in the current fashion, will in effect close Friendship Park.”
The meeting comes a day after local groups gathered for a vigil, calling on Border Patrol to reconsider the proposed border wall renovation project that would replace a deteriorating structure at Friendship Park — the historic binational meeting place families have visited for decades to reconnect with loved ones on the other side.
“The park is a symbol of that ‘other’ border. The border that is a beautiful place of cross-culture and friendship,” Fanestil said at the vigil.
U.S. border authorities say the current structure that extends into the ocean was not properly treated to withstand corrosion before it was installed and that the Trump administration’s project to replace it with taller wall needs to continue.
“We’re in favor of a safe, secure location at Friendship Park,” Fanestil said, adding that should include pedestrian access.
Chanting slogans like “Make friends, not walls” and carrying signs that said “Save Friendship Park,” about 60 to 70 people showed up at Border Patrol headquarters in Chula Vista to voice their concerns during the vigil.
“We’re demonstrating that there is a lot of interest on the part of the public about these new plans the Department of Homeland Security have presented about the construction of a replacement wall in Friendship Park,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program. “We’re worried that President Biden is constructing Trump’s wall.”
Rios has been calling on Border Patrol to re-open access to the park that has been shuttered since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Friends of Friendship Park began raising concerns about planned border wall construction at Friendship Park, which lies at the southwesternmost corner of the United States, after Border Patrol officials told them in a meeting earlier this year that the design didn’t include pedestrian gates to access the park.
That would mean that the more than 50-year-old park could close permanently to the public.
Though initially planned as an open space, the park now lies between two border barriers, one close to the border line and the other farther inside the United States. That space between is what Border Patrol agents call the “enforcement zone.”
The Biden administration initially paused construction of all of former President Trump’s border wall projects, but it is now resuming some, including the one at Friendship Park.
The Department of Homeland Security plans to continue replacing the current border barrier, possibly without gate access, with the 30-foot designs built by the Trump administration
The construction plans reimplemented by the Biden administration involve replacing the two layers of border barrier with 30-foot bollards, or posts placed close together, a design that the Trump administration began building along the border in Calexico in 2018.
When Friends of Friendship Park began voicing concern about the construction plans, Border Patrol told the Union-Tribune that information about gate placement would be coming in the near future.
Members of Congress have been putting pressure on Homeland Security, too. Rep. Juan Vargas said Wednesday that he understood the most recent plans include moving the pedestrian gate 200 feet east of Friendship Park and that it would not be publicly accessible.
The San Diego Democrat and 14 other congressmembers wrote a letter to Mayorkas this week urging him to remain committed to his statements of protecting public access to the park that he made during a recent meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
On Tuesday, Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency to the Border Patrol, said through a spokesperson who declined to be named that the border wall further inside the United States will have a pedestrian gate “in this area.”
“We will identify opportunities to provide the public with access once it is operationally safe to do so,” the CBP spokesperson said. “While these opportunities will continue to need to be based on other U.S. Border Patrol operational requirements, the replacement construction project will not be an impediment to potential opportunities for future access in this location. Upon completion of discussions with stakeholders and receipt of the schedule from the construction contractor, CBP will determine when construction will commence.”
For local advocates, years of Border Patrol adding restrictions to the park make them wary of any vague promises without proof.
Dan Watman, who runs a garden of local native flora at Friendship Park, said it is difficult to trust Border Patrol’s approach of “build first, discuss later.”
“We’ve gotten promises from Border Patrol over the years that they will work with us and they will open it more, but instead things have gotten more and more closed. So now, what they’re telling us is they’re going to bring in the 30-foot walls, and then they’ll talk about access after that,” explained Watman. “It’s a really big ask for them to want us to trust them about that.”
The Friends of Friendship Park plan to convene a Friendship Park stakeholders summit at the end of August.
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