> San Diego Union-Tribune
by Leslie Berestein
2:00 a.m. January 9, 2009
SOUTH COUNTY — Frequent visitors to Border Field State Park, along with park officials, are expressing surprise and dismay over a sudden reversal of plans by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that will result in the permanent closing of a popular cross-border meeting spot.
A secondary border fence running the length of the park to the ocean is being built 90 feet north of the existing fence that marks the U.S.-Mexico border.
Until recently, federal officials said the plan was to have a gate in the secondary fence allowing public access to a small area known as Friendship Park. That area surrounds a marble obelisk dating to 1851 that marks the point where the United States and Mexico agreed on a border after the Mexican War.
The area surrounding the monument, which is accommodated within a cutout in the existing steel-mesh fence, has long been a popular spot for families to gather and visit with relatives on the Mexican side.
At a meeting with Border Patrol officials Tuesday, Border Field State Park Superintendent Clay Phillips and several other attendees were informed that plans had changed.
“They told us that there would be no public access of any kind or any form,” Phillips said. “I can say I was surprised, since the Border Patrol had designed the project with a pedestrian gate and with a walkway to the monument, and at least verbally made some indication that there would be some kind of controlled public access.”
Until recently, state and federal officials had been working out the details of public access to a roughly 40-foot-wide space surrounding the monument.
Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Washington, D.C., said the change of heart came after federal officials concluded that it would be too difficult for agents to monitor a public gathering place between the two fences.
“It would be requiring our agents to constantly monitor interactions at the primary fence, watching for people passing small items back and forth,” Easterling said.
Easterling said that while visitors frequently pass innocuous items such as food back and forth through small openings, others pass fraudulent documents or drugs.
For those who hoped to return to Friendship Park once construction was finished in May, the reversal is a disappointment.
“I may be in denial. I am not willing to accept it quite yet,” said Daniel Watman, an organizer of Border Meetup, which has conducted yoga, surfing and other events at the fence to promote cultural interaction.
Easterling said that once the second fence is complete, there will be no access to the primary fence at the beach, either. Visitors to Border Field State Park will be able to see through the two fences into Mexico, but only people on the Mexican side will be able to access the monument.
Phillips said state parks officials are hoping there is a way to negotiate a middle ground that would allow some public access without compromising security.
Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579; email@example.com