A Fence Away
Visiting Friendship Park in the Trump era
The history of U.S. immigration policy can be told through a half-acre stretch of land where San Diego meets Tijuana. It was there that on August 18, 1971, Pat Nixon reached across the border to shake the hand of a man on the Mexico side who had come to witness the spectacle of the rare visit by a sitting first lady. In those days, the border was sketched by porous, chest-high, barbed cattle fencing. Nixon had come to dedicate the state-run Friendship Park in the name of binational camaraderie. “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long,” she had said.
Over the years, however, as the fence became more fortified and extended farther out into the ocean, Friendship Park remained a safe space of sorts, a place where loved ones could connect, look at one another, clasp hands (and later, touch fingertips), no matter how distanced their countries had become. After President George W. Bush approved the construction of hundreds of miles of new fencing and barriers along the border, the park closed. But supporters successfully fought to preserve the area as a meeting point. Even in the shadow of what Harvard anthropology professor Ieva Jusionyte described as “a militarized border,” there have been joint yoga sessions, concerts, plays, and Masses. Border Angels, a nonprofit immigrant-rights group, has persuaded federal authorities to open a nearby maintenance gate, dubbed the Door of Hope, six times since 2013. There, “parents and grandparents hug children for the first or last times in their lives,” says founder Enrique Morones.
But since Donald Trump entered office, the mood at Friendship Park has shifted. “We’ve seen a decline in visitors since the election,” says John Fanestil, a Methodist pastor who conducts Sunday services at the fence. “Fear of contact with immigration enforcement is very high.” Then in February, in the midst of what felt like an immigration clampdown taking place throughout the country, with increased arrests, raids, and checkpoints, the border authority at Friendship Park became less friendly. Now, the agents impose a 30-minute time limit on visits and have shut down the adjacent Friendship Garden, where people could get a head-to-toe view of relatives as long as they stood 6 feet apart. The regulations also call for only ten people at a time to be at the fence (before, the limit was 24). Families on the U.S. side can no longer take photos or videos.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection attributes the new policies to staffing changes. Others say it’s punishment for a wedding that opened the Door of Hope in November. The groom, Brian Houston, said he couldn’t cross into Tijuana to marry his Mexican fiancée, so the ceremony was held at Friendship Park (it was later revealed that Houston had been convicted of smuggling drugs and was awaiting sentencing). And many simply believe that the rules are the result of the person sitting in the Oval Office. “It’s not a policy that Trump’s people sent down,” Morones says. “But people who are really anti-immigrant, they feel empowered now because they feel Trump has their back.”
On a Sunday in February, shortly after the new rules were put in place, family members line up outside because the park is beyond capacity, with 14 adults and two children inside. The fence divides two contrasting landscapes. To the north, on the U.S. side, there are canyons, running creeks, and the largest coastal wetland in Southern California. On the Mexico side, there’s a historic lighthouse and bullring. A mariachi duo performs near the fence. Maria Martínez, a 26-year-old from the Los Angeles area, is at the park with her brother to visit their family in Mexico. She believes Trump will ultimately close the meeting place. “The president wants to shut it down,” she says with certainty.
“With Trump in office, I think we’re honestly fucked for now,” says 19-year-old David Aguilar, a Dreamer who drove nearly two hours from Riverside to see relatives he hadn’t set eyes on in eight years. Still, Aguilar says, “it was a privilege to be able to see family from afar.” The line, in fact, is filled with Dreamers like Aguilar who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to stay. President Trump, who was expected to visit San Diego in mid-March to inspect new border-wall prototypes, has wavered on DACA, but courts have kept it alive for now.
Aguilar had to take turns with U.S.-side relatives — there were too many of them to go in at once — as they spoke to his brother and father in Playas de Tijuana, the neighborhood on the Mexican side. “I would have liked for all of us to be here at once,” he says.
Paul Gallardo, another DACA recipient, has come from the Phoenix suburbs to see loved ones through the fence. “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “I’m American, but this is as close as I can get to my family. My family roots are on the other side of that fence.”
Erick Hernández, also a Dreamer, drove 19 hours from Arlington, Texas, to see his father, sister, and brother, separated from him for a decade. “It’s emotional,” Hernández, who is 29, says. “My brother was 10 months old when I left. After ten years, I’m surprised at how different he looks.”
In the background, as people continue to line up for their 30-minute reunions, Fanestil’s voice booms. He is conducting his weekly cross-border celebration of Communion. “By the grace of God,” he says through a portable PA system, “nothing will separate us.”