Does California’s Friendship Park need a taller border wall?

Advocates protest plans for reconstruction of the barrier at the binational meeting point.

In 2007, residents of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, began collaborating on a small garden of native plants that spanned both sides of the border. The volunteers wanted “to promote the idea that native flora, and native people, have been here since long before the border,” said Dan Watman, who oversees the garden. Over time, it expanded into a series of circles bisected by the border wall. It includes multiple rare and endangered species, including the toyon bush, which is considered one of California’s 64 most important native plants, and white sage, which is threatened by commercial use. In 2015, volunteers on the Mexico side added vegetable beds that provide food to hungry and unhoused neighbors.


The Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants is located at the southwestern corner of California’s Border Field State Park, in an area known as Friendship Park. In addition to the native plants garden, Friendship Park is an important meeting point for communities separated by immigration policies: Historically, the U.S. Border Patrol has allowed people to enter the “enforcement zone” between the area’s two parallel border walls for a few hours on weekends to visit with friends and family in Mexico. But last August U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, announced plans to reconstruct the barriers that run through the park. It paused them after public outcry, but on Jan. 17, it sent out a press release announcing that construction would begin within 30 days.

This would destroy the U.S. side of the garden completely along with most of the Mexican side, said Watman, adding that the “Border Patrol has shown us that the idea of gardening and making friends across the border gets in the way of enforcement.” Now, advocates are protesting the project’s social and environmental impacts, saying the construction will sever binational connections and scar the land.

Dan Watman harvests produce from the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants, maintained by volunteers at the border.
Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo
“Border Patrol has shown us that the idea of gardening and making friends across the border gets in the way of enforcement.” 

At Friendship Park, the border wall currently consists of a primary barrier,” located on the international boundary and made of 18-foot-tall rust-colored posts, and a secondary wall made of thinner steel beams. Visitors who are permitted into the enforcement zone between those two fences can see one other, but a steel lattice covers the wall’s gaps, preventing any physical contact beyond the touch of fingertips — “pinky kisses,” as they are fondly known.

Despite the restrictions, the park is currently the only site along the U.S.-Mexico Border where people can gather binationally. Those who come to Friendship Park for cross-border gatherings are generally either people who cannot cross into Mexico because they’d be unable to re-enter the U.S., or those whose loved ones cannot access a U.S. visa, including deportees. Most visitors come from California, but families also travel from all over Mexico and the United States for reunions at the park. Additionally, Friendship Park hosts a weekly Border Church, and migration organizations bring attorneys to the park to meet with clients. Volunteers also organize a yearly posada, a traditional celebration held in Mexico at Christmastime, and the Fandango Fronterizo, an annual binational jam session of son jarocho-style music.

Shovels ready for volunteer farmers at the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants in Friendship Park, which is currently the only site along the U.S.-Mexico Border where people can gather binationally.
Courtesy of the Binational Friendship Garden

In December 2022, a Hispanic Access Foundation report called on President Joe Biden to designate Friendship Park as a historic landmark or national monument to recognize and protect its significance. But although Biden signed a proclamation pausing border wall expansion on his first day in office, his administration has since quietly resumed construction throughout the Borderlands, including at Friendship Park.

Not only will this project erode cross-border relationships and damage the native plant garden, it will also increase the risk of flooding and cross-border sewage contamination. However, neither state nor federal environmental laws have the power to stop the wall reconstruction. That’s because a clause in the 2005 REAL ID act waives all environmental regulations — including those related to air and water quality and endangered species — when it comes to border-related construction. That leaves environmental advocates with little recourse to stop new walls.

Advocates say the barriers proposed for the park will destroy its value as a place of human connection. In addition to being 12 feet taller than its predecessor, the new barrier will have more closely spaced posts — so closely spaced that, from an angle, they will resemble a solid wall. “It’s going to be disastrous,” said Robert Vivar, who became involved in Friends of Friendship Park and the Border Church after being deported to Tijuana. “It’s going to be like closing the park down. It’s not going to be a park.”                   

Critics are also unsure whether visitors will even be able access the new enforcement zone. Initially, the wall reconstruction plans had no access gate into the enforcement zone. Though the Border Patrol agreed to add one after community input, advocates are less than optimistic regarding the agency’s ideas of feasibility — especially because it has not allowed community members into the enforcement zone since February 2020.

As the construction date for a larger wall approaches, Friends of Friendship Park and its allies continue to organize protests at the San Diego U.S. Border Patrol headquarters.
Courtesy of AFSC-San Diego

“Border Patrol can say without any significant rationale that it’s not ‘operationally feasible,’ like using the pandemic as an excuse for over three years, or saying they don’t have enough human resources,” said Pedro Ríos, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program and a member of Friends of Friendship Park.

“It’s going to be like closing the park down. It’s not going to be a park.”    

A public relations representative from the Border Patrol’s San Diego office told HCN by email that the current closure was due to the “operational environment and the condition of the current fencing.” The representative said that the agency is committed to allowing visitors access to the enforcement zone once it is “operationally safe,” adding that “use and access of the park must be accomplished in a way that is safe for both the visiting public and U.S. Border Patrol agents.”

As the construction date approaches, Friends of Friendship Park and its allies are continuing to organize protests at the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector headquarters and are reaching out to elected officials and other leaders to amplify their platform. But the advocates’ ultimate goal is even bigger than stopping the wall: They envision a truly binational space that is open to people from both countries, and that respects and preserves the area’s natural environment. While Border Patrol told HCN that the agency plans to re-establish the garden using salvaged plants and new native plants, the park’s supporters aren’t satisfied with these promises.  

“If we’re going to destroy the garden and start all over,” said Watman, “it would have to be because we’re going to have fewer barriers, not more.”

Caroline Tracey is the climate justice fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.