SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — Advocates believe the Border Patrol has no intention of ever reopening the popular Friendship Park and it continues to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to keep it closed, but the agency says there will be opportunities for access in the future.
The binational park is located at the most southwesterly point in the continental United States, where the Pacific Ocean, Mexico and the U.S. meet.
For decades, this area has allowed families and friends to gather and spend time together with the border barrier between them.
Traditionally Border Patrol agents have opened a gate for a few hours on weekends granting access to small groups of people allowing them to walk inside what’s called the “enforcement zone.”
But in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic set in, U.S. Customs and Border Protection decided to stop the practice until the area reopened.
Although Friendship Park sits on federal land right along the border, access to the park is controlled by the state of California because you have to drive or walk through state property to get to it.
California State Parks has reopened the site, but the Border Patrol has yet to grant access to Friendship Park.
Adding to the advocates’ frustration was Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas recent approval of plans to construct two 30-foot walls across the face of Friendship Park, replacing existing barriers now in place.
The plans currently don’t include a pedestrian gate and supporters of the park, a group known as “Friends of Friendship Park,” fear this will be the end to the long-standing tradition of public access.
“U.S. Border Patrol says they are just ‘replacing walls’ at Friendship Park,” said John Fanestil. “But given our experience across the last 10 years, it looks to us like another dramatic step in a long, slow campaign by Border Patrol officials to ‘sunset’ Friendship Park.”
Fanestil and others argue that the Border Patrol had been planning to shut down the park even before the pandemic.
“So using the pandemic as an excuse or lack of resources or more recently, the grading of infrastructure of the border wall to keep the park closed is simply an excuse, they simply don’t want people to show up there,” said Pedro Rios, of the American Friends Service Committee.
Rios is also a member of Friends of Friendship Park.
“When we learned Border Patrol was going to replace what is there with a 30-foot border wall they told us there wouldn’t be an accessible pedestrian gate and that’s when we started raising an alarm,” said Rios.
CBP has said the new walls will replace the deteriorated primary and secondary barriers located adjacent to Friendship Park, saying, “It is no longer structurally sound and is falling apart, which presents risks to Border Patrol agents, community members, and migrants.”
As for putting in a new pedestrian gate, CBP responded with the following statement:
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recognizes the value of having a safe meeting place for families and friends on both sides of the border. Upon completion of the San Diego Friendship Circle Project, including the replacement of a secondary barrier with a pedestrian gate in this area, we will identify opportunities to provide the public with access once it is operationally safe to do so. 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.”
Rios said this information is “vague and non-committal.”
“Even when they have this gate, and if they keep on keeping this park closed, a gate there makes no difference because the park continues to be closed to members of the public,” he said.
On Wednesday, Border Patrol representatives and Friends of Friendship Park are expected to meet and discuss a compromise.