SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Local border patrol officials are being urged to re-open the only place people can go for cross-border contact.
Friendship Park has been closed for more than 600 days.
On Thursday morning, there was a news conference on the lawn of the San Diego Border Patrol sector headquarters in Chula Vista, calling on Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heinke to do just that.
Azucena Lopez and her family used to meet up at Friendship Park, but since it’s been closed – she, her sister and their kids haven’t been able to reconnect with their family south of the border.
“There’s like little holes. We can’t hug each other, so only by touching our fingers...10 minutes, 15 minutes but it’s something beautiful,” said Lopez. “With DACA we are allowed to be here in the United States in any state, but we cannot travel to Mexico. Since they were here illegally, they’re not allowed to get a VISA so they’re not able to come. It’s like going to prison because it’s a lot of bars and barbs and everything..."
Lopez's son is 6 years old and has only seen his grandparents twice.
Lopez said he and his cousins know that the visits are unlike typical grandparent encounters – theirs are filled with fencing and barriers.
“They ask a lot of questions. Why aren’t we allowed to go over there? Why can’t they come over here? Why do we have to see them like that? We need to open Friendship Park. It's more than past time."
Juan Vargas, Congressman for US District 51 and Friends of Friendship Park said, it's time to make room for friendship in U.S. policy at the border.
Despite only being able to see each other through thick fencing, mesh and iron barriers, those who want the park reopened say the visits are still worth it and are begging for the park to be reopened.
Maria Teresa Fernandez is a photographer who works with the Friends of Friendship Park who says despite the barriers, there's still an undeniable level of human connection for which families long.
“Smelling their perfume or listening to their cough or the sound of their voice is different than over the telephone," said Fernandez. "They used to be able to hug. Able to cross gifts and kisses and then there came the construction of the secondary fence and right now, they’re unable to cross anything.”
She says, they're not asking for access 24/7. They just want the park to reopen to the availability they had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is just two days during the week. It’s just a weekend. It’s just four hours Saturday and four hours Sunday to allow families to get together. It’s not too much to ask.”
News 8 reached out to the San Diego Border Patrol sector for a response to the Friends of Friendship Park’s request to reopen Friendship Park.
They released the following statement:
"We understand and value the importance of the bi-national garden and friendship circle. However, with several U.S. Border Patrol sectors experiencing recent increases in migrant encounters, USBP’s San Diego sector has been tasked with support efforts to assist other sectors in the processing and placement of migrants on an appropriate immigration pathway. The operational need for this sector assistance is assessed daily based on the processing capability and facility capacity of each sector. Due to this redirection of available resources, USBP’s San Diego sector currently does not have the personnel to safely allow any access to the area."
An earlier statement regarding Friendship Park attributable to a CBP spokesperson said:
"Our border security operations are at a critical state. San Diego continues to experience increases in mass migration of people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally by land and sea. Narcotics seizures are also on the rise. Adding to the complexity of our border security operations, we are still mitigating the spread of COVID and its variants.
Our resources are limited and encounters with migrants entering the U.S. illegally through San Diego are at their highest in a decade. Due to the personnel needed to secure our border as well as process and care for the influx of migrants we are encountering, our sector simply does not have enough agents available to staff Friendship Park.
Right now, there’s no timeline for resources and personnel to return to be available for reopening Friendship Park."
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