Thursday, January 8, 2009
The Border Patrol will close a popular park on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean to make way for a triple fence along the Mexican border, a legislative aide and activists said Wednesday.
The Border Patrol had been mum on whether Friendship Park would be affected by plans to erect more than 670 miles of barriers along the southern U.S. border. The park draws big crowds from both sides, where people chat through a chain-link fence separating Imperial Beach, Calif., and Tijuana, Mexico. They exchange kisses, tamales, even communion wafers.
By May, the half-acre plaza inside Border Field State Park is expected to be gone, replaced by three fences separated by about 125 feet, according to Jonathan Hardy, an aide to state Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego.
Hardy said he attended a meeting on Tuesday in which Border Patrol agents, led by the San Diego sector chief Mike Fisher, told legislative aides and community activists that the agency will build the fence at the plaza, which was dedicated in 1971 by then-first lady Patricia Nixon.
He said officials showed them backhoes that had already begun breaking up the cement plaza to make way for a dirt patrol road that will be sandwiched between the fences.
A Border Patrol spokesman, Mark Endicott, said he was unaware of any decision on the park's fate. He said Fisher was unavailable to comment.
The fence will extend to the beach, where the border is now marked by tall poles with spaces big enough for adults to slip their arms through, said the Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist pastor who was also at the meeting.
"There will be no public access, it could not have been more absolute," said Fanestil, who has offered weekly communion through the chain-link fence. "Their language was that they were demolishing the plaza and then they'll reconstruct it with a road."
In November, U.S. Reps. Susan Davis and Bob Filner, both San Diego Democrats, and seven state and local elected officials wrote President-elect Barack Obama's transition team to urge that the park be kept open, calling it a powerful symbol of goodwill between the U.S. and Mexico. They are awaiting a response.
A spokesman for Davis, Aaron Hunter, said the Border Patrol's decision to close the park was disappointing.
"We have a new administration. This decision was made by an administration that's on its way out," he said.
On the park's Mexican side, there is also a cement plaza, which sits next to a bullring. One group holds cross-border yoga classes.
Parts of the 800-acre Border Field State Park will remain open, including equestrian trails, according to those who attended the meeting.
The park is next to "Smuggler's Gulch," a gorge that is being filled with nearly 1.9 million tons of dirt to make way for fencing. The area was overrun by illegal immigrants until U.S. authorities launched a crackdown in the 1990s that pushed people to remote mountains and deserts.
Border Patrol officials told the group Tuesday that drugs have been passed through the fence at Friendship Park and that the agency lacked resources to patrol the crowds, said Hardy, the legislative aide.
"In their mind, it's supposed to be a controlled, secure area," Hardy said. "They feel they don't have the manpower to allow large groups."