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Border & Immigration

Families and advocates upset by Friendship Park's planned walls

Myrna Gallegos is a "Dreamer," a term derived from never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act. She has a special work permit and can’t cross the border to visit her family in Mexico. She’s relied on Friendship Park for almost 20 years for these visits, finding comfort in the smallest access that was allowed.

"You cannot hug them, you cannot be with them, so it will be just like (a) finger touch (through the barrier)," she said. "I feel like it's a little relief after so many years without seeing them."

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Still, the separation is hard. "They were so close but at the same time so far," Gallegos said. "It was really, really painful."

Advocates for Friendship Park say those meetings will be even more difficult if Customs and Border Protection (CBP) proceeds with an updated plan for a border barrier through the park. CBP announced the update earlier this week.

While CBP did not include details of the revised plan in its announcement, members of the nonprofit Friends of Friendship Park said they have been given a description of it, and called it the worst they had ever seen. They said that description included a spot where the 30-foot walls will be lowered to 18 feet in the center of the park. But they said that’s a desecration of the site, a token gesture and inadequate for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the park.

"We believe that President Joe Biden is effectively choosing to complete Donald Trump’s border wall at the most historic location on the U.S.-Mexico border," said Friends of Friendship Park executive director John Fanestil at a news conference Thursday. He called the plans "a tragedy."

The group is asking local elected leaders to appeal to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who signed off on the plan after a monthslong pause on construction to get input from the community.

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Advocate Robert Vivar said the Friends had hoped border officials would use the pause to reflect on what the park means to families like the Gallegos.

"This piece of land is very special to us. It’s considered a sacred land — sacred land because of what family represents to us and families that have been separated for many, many years," he said. "It offers an opportunity of hope."

Other advocates said the binational park has become more and more restricted by CBP.

"To put an enforcement agency in charge space of a like this is not logical. There should be a different agency in charge, or there should be more involvement from people who have a different purpose in mind for the space besides enforcement," said Dan Watman, a coordinator with the Friends of Friendship Park and founder of the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants.

CBP declined an interview for this story. In its announcement this week, the agency said its newest plan is "an approach that meets the border security needs of the area while also addressing feedback from the community."

The statement also said when the work is finished, visitors will have access to the park, which "will be coordinated with (U.S. Border Patrol) through a gate in the secondary barrier, during designated periods of time, once it is operationally safe to do so."

The agency said the gate would let visitors "communicate with friends and family located in Mexico on the other side of the primary barrier like in years past."

But in a written statement, Carlos González Gutiérrez, Consul General of Mexico in San Diego, observed, "It has been 50 years since U.S. first lady Pat Nixon inaugurated what she envisioned would be a binational friendship park on the U.S.-Mexico border, when she famously said, 'I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.' Today, when we are celebrating 200 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mexico and The United States, more than ever, I agree with her."

Gallegos said she’ll hold on to the memories of the happy times she had at Friendship Park. They’re the last ones she has of her father, who has since died.

"I am saving those memories," she said, recalling a time when the family had gathered at the park. "We were having a good time dancing (and) singing. I have really good memories."

She said she hoped others can get at least get that.

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