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New Section Of Border Wall Endangers Friendship Park Near San Diego, Advocates Say

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In its final weeks, the Trump administration is rushing to build a 30-foot-tall border wall. It would go right through the middle of an international park on the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego. For almost 50 years, Friendship Park has been a meeting place for friends and family who can't legally be together in either country. From member station KPBS in San Diego, reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler has the story.

MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: A little before 8 a.m. on a dirt road just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Dan Watman is standing next to his car in one of the most surveilled and secure parts of the border.

DAN WATMAN: It looks like a war zone without a war, you know, like they're preparing for a war or something, but there's nothing going on.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Watman is here to work on a garden maintained by people in the U.S. and Mexico inside of Friendship Park. He's one of the few people still allowed to enter the U.S. side. For him, the garden is a symbol of what the U.S.-Mexico relationship could look like.

WATMAN: The whole idea was to show that cross-border friendship is important and that it's important to get along with our neighbors for our security. And yeah, that's slowly been taken away.

RIVLIN-NADLER: The 30-foot-tall primary and secondary fences that Border Patrol plans on building would be an extension of a recently completed border fence replacement project. Right now those fences stopped just short of Friendship Park.

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RIVLIN-NADLER: To get into the park, you need a Border Patrol escort. When they arrived, they took Watman and three other volunteers to the garden.

Friendship Park exists where the U.S. and Mexico meet the Pacific Ocean. It was founded in 1971 when first lady Pat Nixon came to inaugurate the site. That day, she and her security team cut through barbed wire to visit the Mexican side, where she said she hoped one day, there wouldn't be a wall. Border Patrol declined an interview but in a statement told KPBS that the existing primary fencing, which was built just 10 years ago, no longer meets Border Patrol's operational needs. If construction proceeds as planned, Border Patrol expects the project to be completed in late 2021.

Pastor John Fanestil holds a weekly church service at the park meant to reach people on both sides of the border. On the Mexican side, people can come and go as they please. He sees the new wall as further closing off the U.S. side.

JOHN FANESTIL: In my mind, it's a further desecration of this historic location. The location was designed to be a binational meeting place. It has been frequented by people for generations.

RIVLIN-NADLER: In the past, when Border Patrol allowed people to enter the park, they were able to reach through the gate and touch family they'd been separated from. One of those people on the Tijuana side has been Robert Vivar, who was deported from the U.S. in 2013 after living here for 50 years. He says Friendship Park is integral to keeping these two communities connected.

ROBERT VIVAR: A lot of happiness, you know, families being able to meet there at the border wall, you know, families that have been separated for many years.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Vivar it's very emotional, both happy and sad at the same time.

VIVAR: Grandparents being able to finally see their newborn grandchildren, you know, moms that hadn't seen their kids, you know, in 20, 25 years.

RIVLIN-NADLER: Advocates for the park on both sides of the border are hoping the Biden administration will cancel the project once it takes office next month. When asked to comment on the wall construction, his transition team pointed to the president-elect's pledge to end the national emergency on the border, which has let Border Patrol expedite border wall construction and skip lengthy environmental and cultural heritage reviews.

For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler at the U.S.-Mexico border.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUDASAIBEATS' "ATTACHED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.