The location of Friendship Park along the Mexico-US border and by the Pacific Ocean has shaped its history, development, significance, and importance since its origins. The park is inextricably attached to the circumstances and development of the border, and whatever political, social, economic, or ecological changes may affect the border, inevitably impact the park. The US side of Friendship Park is located in an isolated area, several miles away from the closest road and urban development, and is part of a larger park called Border Field State Park located in San Diego County (California Department of Parks and Recreation, 2019).
United States Customs and Border Patrol is the federal law enforcement agency in charge of protecting US borders and its overall primary mission is “to detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States” (US Customs and Border Protection, 2019). With such a mandate and due to its proximity to the border, Friendship Park is under strict control of the BP. The BP has full access to Friendship Park and patrols the area and adjacent areas 24/7; thus the agency decides who, when, and how anyone interested can gain access to the park. This strict control, beginning in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper during the Clinton administration, dramatically increased the number of patrol agents, built fences, and introduced technological tools to stop the flow of illegal crossings. After that, entry to Friendship Park began to be more restricted and controlled but was still accessible to everyone. It was not until after September 11th that the border became a primary concern for national security and more control and barriers (physical, legal, and technological) were established. Friendship Park was greatly affected by this quasi-militarization of the border with the addition of several parallel fences and severe restrictions to access it (Friends of Friendship Park).
Such situations have made access to Friendship Park by most on the US side--immigrants, activists, beachgoers, and visitors--a complicated and difficult effort because the park is closed during the weekdays, and when it is open depends on the current political climate. Physical access to the park is even a challenge. To access the park by car it is necessary to drive on an unpaved road for about 1.8 miles from the main road that crosses Border Field State Park; however, BP often sets up a vehicle barrier at the entrance of Border Field State Park due to flooding, so cars cannot enter. Thus anyone going to Friendship Park has to walk the 3.6 miles roundtrip from the main paved road to the location of the mesh-covered fence meeting area. This distance can affect access especially for those with limited mobility, such as the elderly and others with physical restrictions.
Even though the area is known as Friendship Park, BP does not recognize the space as a park or a public area where individuals can walk or loiter at will because of its proximity to the border. Access to Friendship Park from the perspective of the BP is a foreign concept because an agent's main concern is national security and keeping the border sealed from undocumented immigrants, drugs, terrorists, and any other threats. Thus it is prohibited for people to pass anything through the fence including messages, money, candy, food, or even have a handshake. Thus the need to limit access with thick mesh that greatly limits physical contact, and the presence of razor wire that sends the message that access is not an option. Everything and everyone is a potential danger and all agents react aggressively when a violation of this rule occurs, as we witnessed with the incident of the hug between the mother and daughter.
With this approach comes a dehumanization process that is justified from the BP point of view based on the mission of homeland security: The border must be hermetic at all costs. Therefore, the less people have access to be wandering around the park area, the more secure the border will be, according to this narrative. So even when the park is open to the public only a limited number of individuals can access Friendship Park at once. When the area is being used, BP agents tighten control, can ask for IDs, and can refuse entry if they deem it necessary, without providing a legal explanation.
We interviewed an immigration lawyer who has assisted activist group efforts by participating in free legal service clinics at Friendship Park for those who need help with immigrant status and other related issues. She shared that often someone who is a victim of human trafficking does not have the funds to pay for representation in order to go through the process to obtain legal documentation. The lawyer's perspective is shaped by what she has seen through her clients' experiences and how they have been treated.
I'm for people who are abiding by the law and just happen to be here without documents. I mean I know it's a misdemeanor to enter the country without documents, but my point is a lot of hardworking families just want to be here to provide for their family, and the children who were born here, and they're hardworking, pay taxes -- taxes they're never going to get anything for what they've paid. To me it's very disheartening to see all these families divided.
In the legal system the attitudes of the BP agents she has seen can very much affect the issue of access for immigrants, attitudes that are not the fault of the immigrant: disrespectful attitudes on the part of those who work in the criminal justice system, with immigrants being viewed as second-class citizens who have no rights. She has no way to prove that BP agents somehow may have violated the Fourth Amendment rights of her clients or did not follow due process, but the information she receives from her clients validates that these events happen.
The lawyer also shared her experiences working with DACA recipients. While media may present the DACA process as being easy and resulting in a free ride for those who have received that status, the lawyer has worked with this group as well and shared how access for this group is not a 100% guarantee, given the economic, political and cultural roadblocks that are part of their lives as well. Access for DACA recipients is not an easy road, but a complicated situation requiring resources these young people often lack.
Another very interesting way to think about access in a space such as the border is from the geographical perspective, which includes research on remote sensing of movement and the effects on wildlife and nature that may result from border wall building and related activities. Our visit with an academician who studies the border in terms of piecing together the movement of people across the landscape provided a very different perspective in terms of accessing the border space. The kind of tactical study these researchers engage in provides objective data that can be used to make decisions regarding what structures should be built and how such structures should be maintained and monitored. His group has conducted research, including aerial surveying with drones, on such issues as how long a person trying to traverse the region on foot might survive, how long it can take for emergency responders to reach those in danger in these areas, and how wall building in these areas may negatively affect animal activities and vegetation in the area. This work is shaped through scientific research protocols, so the results show other effects in terms of access in this area. The information has been used to support the BP in obtaining funding for projects related to security, projects that focus on limiting access but also take into account how both people and animals may be in danger. The information these researchers provide is also helpful to the BP in their attempts to keep immigrants safe, and to provide support for immigrants who may have been adversely affected as a result of experiences within the BW area.
Friends of Friendship Park
The Friends of Friendship Park are members of the community working to create a future in which the public will have unrestricted access to this historic meeting place. The Friends dedicate themselves to the work of advocacy on behalf of the many families who depend on the Park to be able to see their families and friends, and because they see in Friendship Park the possibility of a better future for the peoples of both Mexico and the United States. (Friendship Park website)
Friends of Friendship Park is a "non-partisan, grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations advocating for increased public access to the historic meeting place on the US-Mexico border" (Friendship Park website). The group was founded and is led by the Friends of Friendship Park, many who have documented and been involved with issues and activities related to the border wall as far back as 30 years. Access for them is all about providing family connections. Families who had been coming to the park for generations could no longer meet as militarization of the region began, security increased and the logistics for coordinating meetings became more problematic. At the start of the changes to the border fence, the group worked with BP on the goal of "making friends as part of security," but eventually that concept "was just scratched.” In attempts to still allow families to meet in the park but also ensure national security, the first fence built under the Bush administration had a long rolling gate that when opened created a large space for the park to serve as a connecting point during the types of events, such as dances and concerts mentioned earlier in this article. Since then, more fences, mesh placed over fences, and now razor wire from top to bottom of fences where access was already cut off for all practical purposes, have turned Friendship Park into a no-man's land where none of the traditional activities can occur. When asked about the changes in the wall, members of the group “still think it was a horrible thing because instead of six people a year dying crossing the border the number went up to around 400" as access in areas like Friendship Park and areas close to border stations were cut off, so those trying to cross moved to areas where harsh terrain makes the attempt to cross almost impossible. This is part of what they say "caused the humanitarian crisis. “ So instead of a place where access means enjoying activities such as fandago fronteriso, where people dance facing each other through the fence, this area has “become a tragic tradition” in what is now an isolated “militarized zone.”
When asked whether the general public is aware of the realities at the border, one stakeholder shared this view:
Most Americans of course are entirely ignorant of the border. They don't know anything about the border really. They don't understand it; literally they know nothing. So they're ignorant at a very fundamental level. About the history of the border, the people of the border, the culture of the border, the economies of the border... So for me, you know the border is a place of encounter, and a place of communion. A place of friendship a place of culture, of life, of food, of color, and all these are things that you can see when you're on the Mexican side. We were always fighting for more access and the security forces were always making it difficult. It's a very complicated relationship.
As we had begun our inquiry looking at drug smuggling and its connection with immigrants, when asked the activists and immigration lawyer stated they did not believe migrants are drug smugglers, as is often the visual presented depending on political slant of the media outlet. One stakeholder put it this way:
I've been in Friendship Park hundreds and hundreds of times, I've never seen anything violent. I've never experienced a single instance of violence. I've never seen a single instance of contraband being passed back and forth.
These words from activists speak to their first-hand experiences over decades of being involved with BP, with migrants, and with issues related to the border. Their experiences show that immigrants do not fit the image often found in media reports of being criminals, and thus, the actions taken to limit access for immigrants are based on border fictions. These activitists view the increased limiting of access that has been escalating over the past few years as a humanitarian crisis, as they see first-hand how the immigrants are negatively impacted. And the fact that Friendship Park is now virtually closed makes the fight for access even harder.
The current restrictions on public access to Friendship Park make a mockery of the notion of international friendship which lay at the heart of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and to which the surrounding Border Field State Park was dedicated by then-First Lady Pat Nixon in 1971. (Friends of Friendship Park website)
Teaching About Access and the Border Wall
One of the authors, during the summer of 2018 after our visit in January of that year, taught a graduate course titled "Seeing / Re-Seeing the Wall: Visual and Media Analysis of the Southern US Border." This interdisciplinary course focused on studying and researching the Southern US Border, especially the space along the border wall. Through visuals, interviews, reports, articles, media reports, and technical documents related to the BW area, students looked at the wall from a visual perspective and analyzed the visual images and general media information as representative of the limited understanding the general public has of the border and the fence. Students conducted primary research in order to find out from people with experience at the border what they know, what their experiences related to the wall have been, what images helped to create that knowledge, and how these elements create a reality and different perspectives for these viewers. Using some of the same questions from our research, students interviewed people with first-hand knowledge/experience living near the border/crossing the border/having relatives or friends who are separated from others because of the border. One of the texts for the course we read and discussed is Enrique Morones' book titled Border Angels. We also were lucky to have online interviews with Marones, as well as Dan Watman, a member of the Friends of Friendship Park who created and maintains the gardens in Friendship Park.
The results of major projects produced by the students can be found here https://falcon.tamucc.edu/wiki/SGarza/PartFive-2018. The research conducted by the students found similar issues to those we discovered in our research: the border situation is complex; there are many misconceptions about the border area; and media images are limited in presenting the reality of the border and thus create misconceptions. Another very important issue surfaced that may often be overlooked when thinking about access issues--the reality that it can be an uncomfortable and scary topic to discuss. One of the students interviewed a classmate, Lino, who is a Mexican immigrant. Lino shared how he "learned to avoid talking about his Mexican heritage." This was in part due to limited perceptions of Mexico he found in the US, perceptions shaped and driven by media coverage that portrayed Mexico as "desolate" in contrast to the greener pastures of the US. This limited Lino's access to his heritage in terms of who he felt he could be and become once he came to the US.
Being able to share with students the primary research from this project really enriched the course experience. The research the students gathered add to the context on which we can build an understanding of access at the border wall. Providing students with a better understanding of the BW area enriches their knowledge of important issues such as access, and can encourage them to become involved in activist causes that are important to them.
Leaving the Border Wall for Now...
Friendship Park is a powerful visual through which to view the human side of the complex and convoluted US/Mexico Border Wall. Our views of the border as shaped by our beliefs create the image we have of the BW area. Economic forces driven by public needs and wants, and the current political climate also shape what is happening in the BW area. Access to Friendship Park has become more and more complex in our current environment given the insistence by many that we need to build more wall, and the labeling of undocumented immigrants as criminals, even if evidence and data show that is not the case. As part of the executive branch, the BP has responded to the policies set up in Washington DC, and Friendship Park has become a collateral casualty of political decisions that may be far removed from the realities of the Southern border.