By LeDayne McLeese Polaski
A fence runs through Friendship Park at the western end of the U.S. border with Mexico. A 20-foot tall steel structure begun in late 2011 and completed in early 2012, it begins at the very spot where (without barriers) it would be possible to stand in California, Mexico and the Pacific Ocean at the same time.
It cuts through a park where people from both San Diego and Tijuana once met, spoke, touched and shared picnics and even communion across a single chain-link fence. There were cross-border concerts, holiday celebrations, English-Spanish language classes and a yoga class with students in both countries.
Pat Nixon dedicated Friendship Park in 1971 as a symbol of bi-national goodwill. “I hate to see a fence anywhere,” she declared at the dedication ceremony.
Today that sentiment is hard to remember. This fence is now part of hundreds of miles of existing and promised barriers being installed by the U.S. government along the nearly 2,000-mile border.
I came to the border in January 2012 as part of an immersion experience co-sponsored by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and Palmer Theological Seminary. We gathered eight seminarians from two schools for a travel course to explore immigration in context.
We examined the realities that have pushed people to and then across the border in such high numbers. We looked particularly at the affects of NAFTA, which has left many Mexicans, especially those in small villages, unable to scratch out even a meager existence.
Having no local alternatives, they have poured into cities like Tijuana, overwhelming both job markets and infrastructure. Many, still unable to find work to support their families, have come to the United States, crossing both legally and illegally (or, as they say, with or without papers.)
The U.S. response to growing immigration rates has been to make border crossing immensely more difficult. That process began in the early 1990s, continued steadily for the better part of a decade and then shifted into hyper-drive after September 2001. This wall in Friendship Park is simply the latest feature of this effort to fortify the border.
I had worked to prepare myself for what we would see here, but nothing made me ready to stand here and gaze back at my own country through holes in a fence. I felt exactly as I did when, as a college student in 1989, I stood behind a wall looking over into West Berlin, except that this time I’m seeing “my tax dollars at work.” Evidently, I am not the only one — one piece of graffiti on the wall reads, “Berlin, Palestina, Mexico.”
I have to work hard to remind myself that it hasn’t always been this way. For hundreds of years this border was porous with Mexicans crossing over to work and Americans coming down to play. People we met on both sides told us of crossing over for the afternoon in their younger days, going north for a McDonald’s fix or south in search of authentic tacos.
Some of the most memorable people we met were a priest who runs a shelter for recently deported men, pastors of two small but vital Baptist churches, families who welcomed us into their homes and two U.S. Border Patrol agents who took us on their official tour.
The families speak of living on dollars a day. The agents speak of millions of dollars spent to construct the fence and the exhausting daily effort necessary to maintain it.
The pastors speak of spending decades to finance the building of a single-room sanctuary and of the challenges of a transient congregation. The agents show off high-tech cameras, stadium lighting and a newly completed all-weather road.
The priest talks of the desperation that could drive a man to live apart from his family for years in the hope of sending home the money to feed them or the fear that would compel a mother to bring her young children on a days-long journey through the desert. The agents speak of the number of “bodies arrested” in a typical shift.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that the wall has not stopped illegal crossings. Crossing is now more difficult, more dangerous and more costly; people are more dependent on human smugglers and less likely to leave once they’ve gotten in; but no one claims that people without papers have stopped coming.
The families, the pastors, the priest say the answer is comprehensive, humane immigration reform. The Border Patrol agents say the answer is more money, more tools, more staff and higher walls.
On one hopeful day in 1971, our First Lady made a wish that “there never be a wall between these two nations.” The walls between the people we met seem many; perhaps the least of them is the fence that cuts through Friendship Park.