Local San Diego Activists Defend Friendship Park

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

Since 1971, the Monument Mesa at Friendship Park on the U.S.-Mexico border has been an informal gathering place where people kept from physically coming together by the border fence could nonetheless reach out and pass each other greetings, kisses, presents and food. No longer: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seemingly determined to wipe out any sign that the people of the U.S. and Mexico should actually regard each other with anything other than wary hostility, have put the mesa straight in the cross-hairs of the triple border fence. Local activists Christian Ramirez and John Fanestil addressed a San Diego audience April 17 to tell what they're doing to try to save Friendship Park.

Local Activists Defend Friendship Park

Fight Losing Battle for Access Against Homeland Security

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Christian Ramirez, John Fanestil

In 1971, when then-First Lady Pat Nixon came to San Ysidro to dedicate Border Field State Park — also known as Friendship Park — she cut through a single strand of barbed-wire fence separating the U.S. and Mexico and announced, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Twenty-eight years later the Monument Mesa of Friendship Park, a circular patch of ground within the park bisected by a fence through which residents, documented and otherwise, on both sides of the borders have touched fingers and exchanged greetings, gifts and food for years, is about to fall to the relentless militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the determination of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to construct three layers of fencing between the two countries, each layer separated by access roads and open spaces up to hundreds of yards wide, thereby — as local activist John Fanestil has grimly noted — cutting U.S. citizens off from great swaths of U.S. territory.

Fanestil, executive director of the San Diego Foundation for Change and a licensed Methodist minister who was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in February for organizing a cross-border communion ceremony at Friendship Park, was joined by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff member and former San Diego City Council candidate Christian Ramirez at a meeting on Friendship Park April 17 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest. “The Border Patrol says their goal is to achieve ‘operational control’ of the border,” Fanestil explained. “It’s only in the last 15-20 years that the U.S. government has come up with this notion that they could know everything that crossed the border.”

As a legal resident on both sides, Ramirez has seen the change personally. “When I first moved to San Ysidro, “ he recalled, “it was just before Operation Gatekeeper, an operation launched by Alan Bersin, hired by Janet Reno [President Clinton’s attorney general] to become ‘border czar.’ I went to Southwest High School just a few feet away from the border,” Ramirez recalled, “and there was a constant history of harassment from the Border Patrol. It was fun for us kids pretending to be undocumented immigrants. But I remember one incident that showed me it was not normal to grow up like that. At 16 I remember my mom yelling obscenities at two Border Patrol agents and spraying them with a hose, saying, ‘You’re not welcome here. Get out of my yard.’ It was the first sign of resistance. The agents said, ‘Stop, stop wetting us,’ and left.”

According to Ramirez, “The idea of the Clinton administration was to try to resolve the border inequalities between the U.S. and Mexico and eliminate the need for undocumented immigration. NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect January 1, 1994] was supposed to rescue Mexico from the Third World. Fifteen years later, there are more poor people in Mexico than ever before.” NAFTA, Ramirez explained, “was designed to eliminate the boundaries for capital and products between the U.S. and Mexico.” What it wasn’t designed to do, however, was eliminate the boundaries for labor — so shortly after it went into effect, Clinton, Reno and Bersin (who has just been put back in control of border issues for the Obama administration), launched “Operation Gatekeeper” and similar paramilitary Border Patrol “operations” at all the other major urban centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The result, Ramirez explained, wasn’t the end of undocumented immigration of Mexicans (and other central and south Americans) into the U.S. Instead, as both he and Fanestil pointed out, it just sent the immigrants deeper into the desert and made their journeys longer and more dangerous. As NAFTA sucked money out of the Mexican economy, Ramirez said, “workers followed — and at least 5,200 people were killed.” (That’s the official U.S. government figure; Enrique Morones of Border Angels, a pro-immigrant activist, puts the death toll at 10,000 or more.) Ramirez recalled being quoted as saying that Alan Bersin “represented death to our community” — and being criticized by an active Quaker (the AFSC is a Quaker organization) for using such language about him.

As on so many issues, the Clinton administration treated immigration with an iron fist in a velvet glove — and the George W. Bush administration that succeeded it used an iron fist in an iron glove. Ramirez regards the further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border under Bush, who defined the need for “border security” as part of the broader “war on terrorism,” including the mobilization of National Guard troops on the border and the tacit encouragement of the Minutemen and other paramilitary forces, as merely an extension of Clinton’s and Bersin’s “Operation Gatekeeper,” which, Ramirez said, “drenched our community with blood and impunity.” Despite Bersin’s reappointment under Obama, Ramirez insists that “we have an obligation to see that Obama’s border policies treat the border with respect and dignity.”

Fanestil showed a series of charts, based on official Border Patrol data, indicating just how extensive the campaign to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border has been. According to these figures, the Border Patrol’s annual budget has increased from $300 million in 1994 to $3.75 billion today. The number of actual Border Patrol agents has more than tripled in the same time period, from 5,875 in 1996 to 18,319 today. The 2009 federal budget allocates $11.9 billion for all border “protection” activities — the Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other border-related programs — up from $5.6 billion just five years ago.

What these massive expenditures haven’t done, Fanestil argued, is stem the tide of immigration. He pointed out that the numbers of people apprehended trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. held steady at 500,000 per year, with only minor fluctuations, from 1994 until the fall of 2008, when the worsening economic recession in the U.S. and its effect on the availability of low-wage, low-skill jobs — not the border enforcement and militarization — started discouraging immigrants from coming. Instead, he said, “the pattern of migration changed. People stopped trying to cross in San Diego because it became so difficult. Migrants were forced into the mountains and deserts of eastern California and then into Arizona. As a result, as Christian said, deaths increased. This was not unexpected or unforeseen; it was a conscious and expected outcome of this strategy.”

The Border Patrol’s so-called “San Diego sector” of the U.S.-Mexico border is 14 miles long, starting at the Pacific Ocean and moving east, Fanestil explained. During the Clinton and Bush presidencies, he said, “eleven of those 14 miles were double-fenced. The first wall is made of metal panels; the second wall is made of cement pylons 20 feet high. The posts are spaced four inches apart to give the illusion that you can squeeze through, which you can’t. Five miles of it are topped with razor-sharp concertina wire. The gap between the first and second fence varies from 150 to 800 feet, and between the two fences is a paved patrol road that runs the entire length of the 14-mile ‘sector,’ so Border Patrol agents can drive their vehicles very quickly over what they call their ‘zone of enforcement’ or ‘theatre of operations.’” Fanestil noted that Border Patrol officials get testy when the fence is referred to as a “wall,” and said the assistant chair of the agency’s San Diego sector said it should instead be called a “tactical infrastructure.”

The idea of fencing off the entire San Diego sector ran into trouble over the last 3 1/2 miles, Fanestil said, because of a myriad of environmental and land-use restrictions covering the territory. The border militarists, led by former U.S. Congressmember Duncan Hunter (recently succeeded by his son), solved that problem in 2005 when Hunter pushed a bill through Congress — a little-noticed amendment to the Real ID Act — giving the Department of Homeland Security unilateral authority to nullify, suspend or just plain ignore any federal, state or local law or regulation restricting the government’s ability to build the fence. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s head of Homeland Security, invoked that authority on April 1, 2008 and gave out contracts to private companies — mostly the Kiewit Mining Company from Nebraska — to construct the rest of the two-layer fence and add a third layer. According to Fanestil, these contracts were only for one year — so the contractors are in a hurry to finish before they expire for fear the Obama administration might not renew them.

Friendship Park lies squarely in the cross-hairs of the Homeland Security contractors as they attempt to wrap up the fence, Fanestil explained. “This is where the fence dives right into the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “The destination is Monument Mesa, where people used to convene on both sides of the border. The heart of Friendship Park is the monument itself, which marks the spot where in 1849 the U.S.-Mexico Commission actually met to fix the U.S.-Mexico border.” [This was after the 1846-1848 U.S.-Mexico war, when the U.S., taking advantage of corruption and incompetence within the Mexican leadership, conquered what is now California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming from Mexico.] “Over the years,” Fanestil recalled, “Monument Mesa became a famous meeting place for families separated by immigration restrictions.”

Fanestil said his group first got wind that Homeland Security intended to march the border fence straight through Monument Mesa in August 2008. “We were told, for the first time, that it was illegal to pass things through the fence,” he said. “So I started doing a bi-national communion ceremony and continued it for seven months. Over 30 community organizations, 40 religious leaders and every elected official who actually represents the area of the U.S. side of Border Field State Park signed on to our letter opposing running the border fence through Friendship Park. Letters have been written to Janet Napolitano [former Arizona governor, now Obama’s Homeland Security chief] and Obama himself. But the Department of Homeland Security trumps all.”

What’s more, his group of nonviolent protesters started being met with what Fanestil called “a human fence” — a solid wall of Border Patrol agents standing across the edge of the mesa, “so if you try to approach the fence they will literally block your path.” Fanestil said that he and Ramirez have both been detained at Friendship Park in the last three months and another activist in their coalition, Dan Watman, was actually arrested on April 8, 2009 for being on the “wrong” spot of his country’s soil. “The ‘human wall’ is a nightmare for the Border Patrol,” Fanestil added, “because they were trained to prevent people from entering the U.S. illegally. Now they’re charged with keeping U.S. citizens out of the ‘zone of enforcement,’ and they’re using the same tactics. Now they’re trying to stop people from entering from either side.”

Fanestil said he thought his group was actually gaining some political traction and had a good chance at stopping the fence, or at least winning a moratorium on construction until the Obama administration could review its predecessor’s border policies, until the recent spate of media coverage claiming that Mexico was virtually a “failed state,” unable to control its drug cartels or police itself effectively. Nonetheless, he said, his coalition “is committed to maintaining a community of friendship at the park. We’re asking for a public review of DHS’s plans and a moratorium on fence construction at Friendship Park. The border is a place of friendship and communion, and we are hoping the will of the people in the border lands will prevail.”
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