Forty years ago today, a celebration occurred at the United States-Mexico Border.
Land used for military training in World Wars I and II near California’s most southern city was being converted into a preservation and recreational park.
Border Field State Park was born that day, turned over from the federal government to state government, one of 642 parks created though President Richard Nixon’s Legacy of Parks program.
But another park was also created that day.
As the first lady commemorated the special occurrence, she noted hundreds of people standing behind a barbed-wire fence in Mexico.
In what would become a historic moment, she asked that the fence be cut down because there was no need for a fence that “separates the people of two such friendly nations.”
Friendship Park—or Parque de la Amistad—was born, and for decades it was a binational place of gathering. One park for two nations.
“Border Field State Park and Friendship Park are places of great historic and cultural significance to the people of the U.S.-Mexico border region,” said Congresswoman Susan Davis. “Marking the first meeting of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Commission in 1848, it is a place where San Diegans have gathered for generations to visit through the border fence with family and friends in Tijuana.”
Strategy and Skepticism
Operation Gatekeeper began on Oct. 1, 1994. Since then, immigration traffic has slowed near San Diego, but has increased in other ports of entry and cities to the east.
Immigration traffic in the San Diego sector accounted for 44 percent of Border Patrol apprehensions nationwide in 1994, according to a 1998 report from The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General. Imperial Beach alone apprehended more illegal aliens that year than any other sector from California to Texas.
“Border Patrol were apprehending 1,800 to 3,000 people a night,” said Imperial Beach Councilwoman Lorie Bragg. “It’s not just what I feel about it, it’s what it means to this community. I’ve seen results since Operation Gatekeeper.”
Bragg has lived in Imperial Beach for decades. She recalls waking up in the middle of the night and looking out her bedroom window to see 40 people standing outside waiting to be picked up by a coyote—or smuggler—traveling north.
“There were residential burglaries, car burglaries. They were gathering resources to go further north and often they were taking those resources,” she said. “We don’t have that anymore,” she said. “It’s greatly diminished.”
But having been a resident of Tijuana, she said she understands their motivations.
“We’re talking about people who made more money donating blood than they did working as a professor at a college in Mexico,” she said. “I understand why they’re here – my heart is divided.”
In recent years, that once heavy flow of migration has decreased.
Due in part to recession in America and economic growth in Mexico, the number of Mexicans leaving for the U.S. declined 60 percent from 2006-2010, a report said.
According to research released last month by the University of California and the Pew Hispanic Center, more Mexicans have left the United States than have entered the U.S.
Chris Bauder, president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, said the wall has “done wonders” for certain areas near the border, but it does not address the issue of illegal immigration.
“Walls and fences are the politicians’ weak attempt at misleading the public to think they care about the problem and really just provide the citizens with a false sense of security,” he said.
Rather than a solution, the strategy of deterrence has merely redirected traffic, Bauder said. While numbers have dropped in the San Diego sector, they have increased in other areas.
“Those same wonders could have been accomplished a lot easier, without changing the landscape, and probably for a lot cheaper by just cutting off the job magnet that continues to draw people from around the world to the United States,” he said about the border fence.
And with significantly less casualties.
“The wall symbolizes everything that is wrong with human rights,” said Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels, a non-profit group that feeds and clothes thousands of migrants as they attempt to cross the international border. “More than 10,000 people have died. Those were 10,000 individual people with individual stories.”
Stories like that of Francisco and Pedro.
During a trip in the desert, Morones and his Border Angels discovered two men dying of thirst. After giving them water and waiting for hours, the two men slowly began to recover.
“It became apparent that Francisco had saved this man’s life,” Morones said. “Risking his own life, he carried Pedro over his shoulders.”
Several weeks later, Morones received a call.
“It was a boy,” he said. “He was calling to say thank you because we had saved his father, Francisco, in the desert. I had the pleasure of sharing his dad’s heroics with the son.”
Swimming in a sea of bad publicity are stories like these, Morones said.
“It leads to ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance and fear of change are our biggest barriers to reform.”
Not many Americans know Tijuana like Derrik Chinn. Once a nightlife and music reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, he is the founder of Turista Libre, an independent tour company that specializes in Tijuana day trips exploring the overlooked and underrated.
“We peg it as ‘No narco warfare. No strolls down hooker row. No donkey shows. No gringo stereotypes,’ ” he said. “The idea is to give foreigners a chance to feel like a local for a day in a city that was ironically built for tourists.”
To Chinn, Friendship Park is one of the most surreal sites in the nation. Having experienced it from both sides of the border, he said the difference is immeasurable.
“On the Mexico side, families are propped up against the actual wall picnicking, laughing, shouting,” he said. “Kids are running around in diapers on the beach. Fully clothed doñas are wading in the waves.
“And even though the border is ever-present, the San Diego skyline looming in the distance, the place is alive as it’s always been.”
Cut to the United States side.
“Border Patrol now forbids anyone from stepping within 10 feet of the actual fence,” Chinn said. “You’re most likely the only person there aside from Border Patrol, actually. It’s lonely and almost post-apocalyptic. The average American seems to have forgotten about it altogether, and that’s assuming they even knew such a place existed in the first place.”
This eerie juxtaposition symbolizes a major difference between the two cities – the interpretation of being a border town, Chinn said. While San Diegans have the luxury of ignoring their southern neighbor, the presence of the United States is ever-present and unavoidable to people on the other side, he said.
Mexico's First Lady attended a ceremony earlier this year to celebrate the opening of a redesign of the border park in Mexico. are also being discussed on the U.S. side.
“Embracing border culture is the only way to help the immigration issue on any scale,” he said. “The border is everywhere. The necessity for one to exist in parallel geocultural universes anywhere, which are affected directly by geopolitical happenings everywhere, has essentially become unavoidable. So we're all fronterizos, like it or not.”
More than different perspectives, the wall has strained relationships between border towns and communities in Mexico, Bragg said.
“It’s not just Imperial Beach—Calexico, Juarez—you go out to those communities and relations are strained,” she said. “Is it just because of the fence? That’s got a lot to do with it. Someone standing on the one side of the fence has all the freedom in the world and just on the other side, someone doesn’t. It creates a real difficulty.”
Relations aren’t the only aspect of border culture that suffer. San Diego’s Regional Planning Agency and the California Department of Transportation recently completed a study showing the effects of border-crossing delays on productivity, industry competitiveness and lost business income at the regional, state and national level for the United States and Mexico, according to their website.
At an average wait time of 45 minutes, more than 8 million trips across the border are lost, according to the study. Eight million trips equates to $1.3 billion in potential revenues. Waits also affect regional productivity, resulting in an output loss of $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year.
The study estimates that if border wait times increased by 15 minutes, the binational border region would lose $1 billion and more than 130,000 jobs.
These numbers reflect personal travel only. Border delays and their effect on freight movement cost the American and Mexican binational economy $6 billion in revenue and more than 51,000 jobs in 2005.
Trees, the Berlin Wall and the Future
In commemoration of the newly appointed park, Pat Nixon planted a tree in the Tijuana River Estuary. It is long gone, state park officials said, but Nixon’s sentiments remain, said Imperial Beach Councilman Jim King.
“They say fences make good neighbors but walls don’t,” he said. “We have a wall.”
When the Berlin Wall was constructed in Germany, Bragg was 4 years old.
“I never thought in my lifetime the Berlin wall would come down,” she said. “So at the border, is that fence going to be gone? I don’t know.”
Congresswoman Davis said reform is not only necessary but also multi-faceted.
“Our immigration system needs to be reformed to be reflective of the needs of families, businesses and national security,” she said. “San Diegans want and deserve compassionate, realistic solutions to the very real immigration problems we face. They want smart borders, which mean fair and realistic immigration laws that can actually be enforced, immigration laws that protect our security, respect our ideals, and honor our heritage as a nation of immigrants."
But not everyone sees a solution on the horizon.
“Unfortunately, I don't think there ever will be a good answer for the immigration issue today,” Bauder said.
While national overhauls are necessary, the front lines of change are the border towns most affected.
“I'd argue that our government encourages us, if even subconsciously, to forget or disregard the important symbolism of Friendship Park and what it means to be fronterizo norteamericano, an American border dweller,” Chinn said.
“Only a resurgence or a renaissance of interest among locals, especially north of the border, in regards to what it means to inhabit a border region as a positive thing—something that enriches, not hinders, one’s existence as a citizen of the world—will change that.”