BY JEAN GUERRERO
FEB. 27, 2023 3:30 AM PT
President Biden should call off construction crews gathering at the southernmost edge of California’s coastline to erect a border wall that epitomizes Trump’s dystopian vision.
The planned double-layered, 30-foot-tall steel wall would create another heartbreak at a historic site for binational unity, Friendship Park, inaugurated 52 years ago by First Lady Pat Nixon. Back then, just a few strings of barbed wire separated the U.S. and Mexico. Archival footage of the park’s 1971 inauguration shows the first lady disturbed by fence on the mesa and asking that it be taken down so she could hug and shake hands with people in Mexico. “I hope there won’t be a fence too long here,” she said. The dream was for a place symbolizing the close relations of two neighbors, not unlike Peace Arch Historical Park on the U.S.-Canada border.
Photo: Friendship Park seen during its 51th anniversary celebrations at the border between U.S. and Mexico last August. (Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images)
That old footage is a window into an alternate universe, far from the Republican Party’s vicious rhetoric about the border now. It’s also a reminder of what the GOP could be, even as Democrats prove to be disappointing on border issues.
It was President Clinton who oversaw the desecration of Pat Nixon’s dream with construction of a steel wall in the 1990s as he pandered to nativists. It ran across the sand and down into the sea. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the border was further militarized with surveillance cameras, sensors and more. A secondary fence topped with barbed wire and parallel to the primary one was built under President Obama.
Access to the park came under Border Patrol’s control and discretion after 2007. The agency oversaw binational activities in the area between the two fences for a few hours on weekends, sometimes less: religious activities, civic gatherings and tearful reunions between people standing on the Mexico side and their loved ones on the U.S. side, sometimes touching through the slats of the wall.
Border Patrol stopped all activities during the pandemic and has kept the park closed, claiming that deteriorating barriers needed replacing. Although they could be replaced with similar structures, Customs and Border Protection approved a plan to erect new barriers at nearly double their 18-foot height.
Now, if Biden moves forward with building a wall at the park, it won’t be Trump or the Republicans who will be remembered for transforming one of the border’s last hopeful places into another place of anguish.
Trauma physicians in San Diego are already dealing with a surge in traumatic brain injuries and spinal injuries due to falls from the taller border wall built east of Friendship Park. Scripps Mercy Hospital has treated hundreds of patients who’ve fallen from the taller wall in other parts of San Diego since January 2021.
Last year, UC San Diego saw a fivefold increase in admissions of patients with traumatic injuries. Between 2019 and 2021, it treated 375 such patients, compared with only a few dozen in the previous three years. Trauma physicians call it an “unseen public health crisis.”
Earlier this month, the Mexican Consulate in San Diego released data showing that nearly four dozen Mexican nationals have fallen to their deaths in the last year in the San Diego-Tijuana border area.
Those numbers are only a fraction of the total deaths and injuries from falls along the 2,000-mile border. “If we had a better sense of how many people are actually being injured, the conversation with policymakers would be much more urgent,” said Pedro Rios, a human rights activist in San Diego.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection paused the wall project last August to take public comment. But it resumed work this month, saying it had made a concession: keeping the height of one layer at 18 feet for a 60-foot stretch. The rest of the 0.6-mile project will be 30 feet tall, as will the whole secondary fence. “It’s just a joke,” said John Fanestil, a pastor and a leader at Friends of Friendship Park.
The agency said it will restore public access to the park for “designated periods” after construction finishes in six months. But Fanestil is skeptical. “This is part of a years-long campaign to close the park,” he told me. “They’ll be able to say they’re short on staff. They always come up with excuses for keeping it closed.”
Border Patrol doesn’t hide its hostility to the park. In January 2020, the agency bulldozed the binational garden of native plants on the U.S. side without warning, claiming the foliage was providing cover for smugglers. Fanestil remembers a time between 2008 and 2009 when he used to serve cross-border communion by passing the sacramental bread through the wall. Officials deemed it contraband.
In Tijuana, Friendship Park is Parque de la Amistad, a popular destination for families to take in vistas of the California coast. It’s vibrant and bustling, unlike the militarized U.S. side. Murals decorate the wall. Kids play on the beach, gingerly approaching the fence. Families eat and enjoy music by a historic obelisk, the first monument demarcating the border, from the mid-1800s.
Wall construction would damage the Mexican side of the binational garden because its roots extend into the U.S.. The wall would also obstruct cross-border views, appearing solid at an angle.
The World Design Organization, which recognizes socially and environmentally smart design, named the San Diego-Tijuana region the 2024 World Design Capital. It’s the first binational region to win, and includes an alternative design for the park. Biden should pause construction until he can review the design, which will be showcased next year. But he’s clearly more concerned with appearing tough on the border.
Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has done little to persuade the Biden administration to halt this proposal, despite being one of the nation’s boldest fighters for immigrant families. If anyone can break Democrats’ cycle of cowardice on the border, it’s him. He mustn’t let Biden destroy one of California’s great treasures: one of the world’s most powerful symbols of human interconnectedness.
Jean Guerrero’s book “Crux” was published this month in paperback. @jeanguerre