>San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday, February 22, 2009
Meeting place sealed off
Border patrol agents prohibit access to Friendship Park
by Penni Crabtree
SOUTH COUNTY — In the end, immigration activists never made it to the site of yesterday’s planned demonstration, a plaza dubbed Friendship Park that sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean at Border Field State Park.
For the first time, Border Patrol agents formally sealed off access on the U.S. side to the plaza, for years a popular meeting place on the U.S.-Mexico border for families to visit through the fence.
The Department of Homeland Security announced late last year that it will prohibit all public access to the park where a secondary wall is under construction. Since then, the plaza has become a symbolic touchstone for those who debate border enforcement policies.
Until recently, federal officials had planned to have a gate in the secondary fence that would have allowed people on either side to visit.
“This is a treasured piece of the San Diego landscape where people meet for peaceful reasons,” said John Fanestil, executive director of the Foundation for Change, a nonprofit social-justice group involved in immigration issues. “The fencing will change that landscape.”
In recent weeks, Fanestil and others formed the Friends of Friendship Park Coalition to save the park and have received support from elected officials, including Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis, both San Diego Democrats. Filner, Davis and other federal lawmakers from border states sent a Feb. 8 letter to President Barack Obama asking him to revisit the construction plans.
Yesterday, about 125 park supporters marched the mile or so on muddy roads and along the beach to Friendship Park. A handful of people opposed to illegal immigration also were there.
The spot was not without poignant symbolism, a strip of beach pierced with metal pilings that form the existing border fence, which runs into the ocean for a few feet before giving way. A child could easily swim between the two countries.
On the south side of the pilings, Mexican families strolled on the beach, bought roasted ears of corn from a vendor and leaned against the fence to watch happenings on the other side.
On the north side of the pilings, Friendship Park supporters held an ecumenical religious service, complete with a choir. Opponents of illegal immigration tried to disrupt it with a siren-blasting bullhorn and shouted slogans such as, “Go home, illegals!”
One wore a cap with the logo of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal-immigration group.
Since the ban on public access to Friendship Park was declared, a few dozen immigration activists have continued to gather there weekly to hold religious services and other activities.
Yesterday, two activists were detained and later released without charge after they tried to approach the fence against orders from Border Patrol agents.
“This is the first day they’ve chosen to enforce the ban on public access,” Fanestil said. “Before, they tolerated our presence. Clearly they will tolerate us no more.”
Fanestil said he and other members of the park coalition plan to meet and discuss plans for future park actions.
Mark Endicott, public-affairs officer for the U.S. Border Patrol, said no public access will be authorized between the primary and secondary border fences.
The decision to impose the ban is “based on our border security mission and to assure the safety of border agents and the public,” he said.
Penni Crabtree: (619) 293-1237; firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: Eduardo Contreras/Union Tribune