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My Turn: Border safety and human dignity

  • People place their hands on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Friendship Park in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 2, 2008, before the current triple fence was installed. AP file



For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On the Saturday after the elections, my wife and I and one of our daughters and her husband traveled from San Diego to Border Field State Park in the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

It was a sunny, warm day for the two-mile walk through the saltwater low lands. The sweet scent of flowers was in the air. The songs of marshland birds and the flash of gulls’ wings competed for our attention. Ahead and on our left we could see the distant houses and new construction on the hillside in Tijuana, Mexico.

In the foreground was a high concrete wall barrier separating the United States from Mexico. Our destination was Friendship Park at the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Along the way we joined a young Mexican woman and her father. She is a U.S. citizen. He has a window washing business in San Marcos, Calif. They were making the journey to the park to meet his mother and family members who are not allowed to enter the United States. The father and daughter are reluctant to go into Mexico. They fear they would not be allowed to return to their U.S. home.

Friendship Park is a paved strip of land about 50 feet wide between two high steel fences traversing the border west of Tijuana and extending 100 yards beyond the surf into the Pacific Ocean. Down the middle is a road used exclusively by U.S. Border Patrol vehicles. While we waited for the gate to open into this barren strip of land, we could look beyond the two fences to see groups of people strolling on the beach on the Mexican side.

The gate into Friendship Park opens only on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The sign beside the gate explains that only 20 people at a time can be in the area between the fences. On the other side of this narrow strip, people wait behind the second fence to meet their friends and relatives from the U.S.

When the gate opened, father and daughter rushed across the narrow Friendship Park to greet his mother and other family members standing beyond the second fence. They spoke excitedly through the fence. The father had not seen his mother in 14 years. They pressed their hands against the fence – son and mother and two separated sisters. There was no touching. Woven through the steel frame of the fence is a heavy wire mesh, preventing contact and the passing of any items to one another.

There were less than 20 people waiting at the gate on this day so we also entered the park between the two fences. We watched two parents introduce their infant child to family and friends on the Mexican side. One U.S. Border Patrol official, standing next to his vehicle, was controlling the gate and watching the people gathered at the far fence. I learned that he was also a public relations officer for Border Patrol. He was originally from Maine but when he joined the Border Patrol, he was assigned to the Mexican border. When I asked him why he chose to join Border Patrol, he replied, “I want to serve my country.” However, he also explained that work in Maine was scarce and he needed a job.

During our half-hour conversation, I asked, “What is the discussion among your colleagues about the presidential transition?”

He responded: “We don’t think a wall will be built along the whole border. However, we do anticipate that there will be more money for the hiring of more personnel.”

“What is it like to watch these people visiting with the fence between them?”

“We opened this area (Friendship Park) to give them the opportunity meet,” he justifies.

I explained that I had talked with a Texan who lived on the border and missed the days when there was free movement across the border to visit, shop, work and for entertainment.

“I’m too young to remember those days, but I’ve heard the stories,” he responded. “I agree it is the way relationships should be between the people of our two countries. But today, after 9/11, it is important to restrict movement across the border.”

I asked, “Doesn’t dividing families and restricting interaction among people of our two countries contribute to more tension, misunderstanding and fear?”

“It does, but you should know that over 50 percent of border patrol personnel along this section of the border are of Mexican descent,” suggesting that their presence makes the situation acceptable.

I also learned that once or twice a year, there is a time designated for people from each side of the border to stand in the opening of an emergency door in the fence to touch each other and embrace for as long as three minutes, under the watchful eye of a border official. These meetings are organized and limited by a lottery. I commented, “It seems to me that this destroys dignity rather than communicating good will.”

“It’s the way it has to be,” he replied with an uneasy shrug.

A silent parting handshake acknowledged a mutual, uneasy, troubling tension.

Before we left the park, we went over to the second fence to say goodbye to our father and daughter walking companions. They introduced us to their family from Mexico. Through the fence, there could be no handshaking, just smiles and well wishes. Returning through the gate on the U.S. side, we looked down to the shore of the Pacific Ocean where the two fences enter the water. On the Mexican side, there were adults and children sitting on the beach and swimming. The U.S. side was deserted except for one Border Patrol vehicle driving through the sand.

As we walked the two miles back to our car we pondered the irony in the name “Friendship Park,” a barren strip of land between two iron fences, one with a steel-meshed barrier. We later learned from No More Deaths that so far this year, 469 people have needed help to recover $54,134 taken from them by the Arizona Department of Corrections when they were deported. Others stranded in Nogales, Mexico, have needed help to make 2,150 phone calls to tell friends and family about their sudden deportation from the United States. There have been remains of 144 people found in the southern Arizona desert so far this year.

Conversation about the border between the United States and Mexico has been dominated by fear of lost jobs, economic assistance abuse, drugs, terrorism and “the wall.” Missing is an awareness of the human condition.

In the West Wing, in the halls of Congress and in our neighborhoods, we must begin to frame the discussion of border issues around human dignity, uniting families, developing friendships and acknowledging the valuable contributions each person can make to our respective countries. Then, perhaps, the next time we visit the borderlands, we will be able to shake the hands of the man’s Mexican mother and his daughter’s sister. And together we will hear the voices of the songbirds and see the gulls flying back and forth across the border.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord.)