Friendship Park turned 50 years old, but the park where people on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border fence can meet in person will have to celebrate its anniversary without being fully open.
The park, located inside Border Field State Park, would be largely unrecognizable to those who attended its opening 50 years ago, but despite being separated by a wall, it’s become a symbol of hope for two communities united by a vision.
On Aug. 18, 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon ordered a stretch of barbed wire fence be cut out so she could cross into Mexico to meet an adoring crowd.
It was a moment she hoped would help solidify the U.S. and Mexico as trusting partners, but half a century and generations of border policy changes later, that small barbed-wire fence has been replaced by two 20-foot tall fences reinforced with steel mesh, surveillance cameras, a watchtower and border patrol agents -- making even the smallest physical contact between the two countries nearly impossible.
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Friendship Park closed in the Spring of 2020 due to the pandemic and still hasn’t fully reopened to its pre-pandemic schedule. U.S. Border Patrol officials said because of an influx of migrants at the border, they can’t properly staff the park.
But activists are pushing back -- negotiating with the agency for access to what they call the most important part of the park, Friendship Circle, the area between two steel border fences where people on the U.S. side can see friends and family in Mexico up close.
The agency has agreed to let people inside the two border fences, but only on weekends between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program and member of the immigrant rights advocacy group Friends of Friendship Park told NBC 7 the whole park should be reopened at its pre-pandemic schedule.
“This is a vision that's completely distorted from what Pat Nixon had 50 years ago. When Border Patrol denies entry they are doing a disservice to not only the history of Friendship Park but also the legacy and the intention of the vision former First Lady Pat Nixon had -- that the park be international and open to everyone,” he said. “There are real people that are hurt and injured by these policies and so we get to see a lot of families that are separated because of immigration issues.”
He said the area is unique in its ability to allow countless families opportunities for raw and emotional reunions.
“It's the area where families are able to see each other…they're able to share conversations in ways that can't happen anywhere else.," he said. "We've been able to see a grandfather see his grandchild for the first time…a grandmother saying her goodbyes to her grandchildren because she has terminal cancer. That's why it's become such a sacred space for many people.”
Rios said seeing how tightening immigration policies are impacting families firsthand is motivating him and Friends of Friendship Park to form a new vision for the park.
“I used to go on a swing set in my backyard as a kid and I could see Friendship Park from my backyard and so the border region is part of who I am,” he said. “I'm concerned with any sorts of policies that impact the border community in general because I live in this community.”
He said Friends of Friendship Park is working with architects to propose a new design for the area – with the goal to keep Nixon’s vision of a fence-free binational park alive.
“If we were to have a conversation with Pat Nixon, it would be one of shame to show her what Friendship Park has become…what we're doing here are steps towards fulfilling that vision,” he said. “We need to get back on track and create an international park that recognizes that real legacy of camaraderie.”
Plans for the park and what Rios called a multi-use facility and pier would be “unencumbered by structures and impeded by enforcement agencies” and have already been drawn up.
The group plans to reveal them to the public at the art gallery Bread & Salt Thursday night.
Rios said the event is just one of several planned throughout the week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the park and that a full schedule can be found on its website.
The anniversary events will wrap up with a ceremony at the park on Sunday, Aug. 22 with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina and leaders from both sides of the border. The event will not be open to the public.