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Friendship Park's intended purpose is lost in fog of border war

January 06, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

There are just two weeks left in his presidency, but down in San Diego County the heavy machinery is grinding away at one last grand project from the administration of George W. Bush.

As The Times reported Sunday, your tax dollars are paying for contractors to move mountains of earth and make canyons disappear at the U.S.-Mexico border. New fences are rising and a no-man's land is being carved into the Earth.

By government decree, state and federal laws that might have slowed down the project -- including the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts -- have been suspended in the name of national security.

This hurried display of Pharaonic excess from the people who brought us the Iraq war won't make us much safer. It's another bit of overkill that's blind to the causes of illegal immigration. And it also happens to be killing a place called Friendship.

Friendship Park sits on a spot of California territory overlooking the beach where the border reaches the Pacific Ocean. In the early 1970s, President Nixon and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan established it as a symbol of international goodwill.

These days, contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have sealed off its picnic benches with hurricane fencing.

For three decades, the park has been property of the state of California and a cross-border meeting place. Fernando Orozco, a legal U.S. resident, biked there Sunday. He recently had his wallet and ID stolen, and the park is the only place where he can see his wife, Marta Ramos, a Mexican national. They embraced and kissed through the fence.

John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister, is one of several activists who say they are determined to "use the park for its intended purpose." Even as the construction project marches toward the sea, Fanestil holds Communion at the fence every week, passing a chalice of wine over or through the barriers.

"There is no accountability and no check on the power of Homeland Security," he told me as we hiked to the fence. "What they're doing here is almost punitive."

Illegal border crossings at the park stopped being a major problem more than a decade ago -- that traffic moved inland, to the Sonoran Desert, after the Clinton administration's Operation Gatekeeper brought fences, cameras, floodlights and motion detectors to the area. But the current administration's determination to build ever-higher barriers has not flagged.

In November, two members of Congress, half a dozen state legislators and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi wrote to President-elect Obama's transition team asking that he "intervene to save Friendship Park."

But construction has continued. And on Sunday, Fanestil, 47, passed tortillas that doubled as Communion wafers through the border. Border Patrol agents had prevented him from climbing up to the bluff and his usual spot near the picnic benches, so he held the ceremony at the beach. "Just another day at Friendship Park," he said afterward.

A lot of history has unfolded on that spot of earth and sand, much of it reflecting the tortured and ambivalent relationship we have with our Spanish-speaking neighbor to the south.

On Oct. 10, 1849, in the wake of the Mexican War, a group of U.S. and Mexican surveyors met there and began mapping the frontier. First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated Friendship Park in 1971, and even reached across the border to shake a hand or two. Until recently, you could picnic in its half-acre plaza, or walk up to the obelisk that marks the first point in the 1849 survey. You could even put your fingers through the fence and talk to someone on the other side.

That was the era of "friendship." John Carlos Frey, a San Diego native and filmmaker who joined me on my hike with Fanestil, remembers celebrating his ninth birthday at Friendship Park in 1972.

"My Mexican relatives passed their presents over the fence," he said. "And we could walk over to the Mexican side and buy some tacos if we liked. It wasn't a big deal."

Then came the era of The Wall, which was spurred by the anarchy of the 1980s and '90s. Large crowds of illegal crossers gathered at the bluff and nearby canyons at night to rush past the overmatched Border Patrol.

The fences the Clinton administration built in response shifted illegal immigration but didn't stop it. In the first years of this century, migrants have paid increasingly higher fees to smugglers who ferry them through the distant desert.

Last year, when I lived in Mexico City, I knew one woman whose husband paid $3,000 to a "coyote" to get across the border. He later called from Phoenix to say the smuggler was holding him hostage and demanding $500 more. It seems crazy that anyone would try to cross that desert by dealing with such criminals -- but many take the risk and make it across.

Even if the U.S. government managed to hermetically seal the land and river border, experts predict the smugglers would simply move out to the Gulf of Mexico, much like the Africans who cross the Mediterranean Sea to enter Europe.

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