Seven members of Francy Carbajal's family gather on the Mexican side to wave to her. Photo by Chris Stone
A family gathers on the Mexican side of Friendship Park to wave to a relative. Photo by Chris Stone

It goes without saying the national immigration debate is complicated, heart-wrenching and divisive. The most cynical and inhumane brand of politics has been in the driver’s seat of this issue for decades. 

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Talk of towering walls, cries of “Amnesty!” and headlines warning of criminal gangs roaming American streets drive the conversation on conservative news stations, social media and Congress. It debases all of us, it’s malicious and, unfortunately, it’s effective. 

This phenomenon is epitomized in the fate of Friendship Park, which has served as one of the most hopeful and meaningful spots in the long and fractured history of migration between the U.S. and Mexico. The Biden administration is now angling to turn what’s left of the park into a bleak militarized zone, with two, 30-foot, unsightly steel walls replacing the 18-foot wall that marks the border and the 18-foot fence that surrounds the park.  

The monument at this historic location was first put in place in the mid-1800s, at the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, to demarcate the new international boundary. In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon inaugurated the surrounding area in the United States as California’s Border Field State Park, declaring it the first phase of what was to become “International Friendship Park.”

For generations, the park served as a safe, friendly place where families separated by nationality could reunite for a short time. 

But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Friendship Park became the venue for something else: the brutal politics of immigration. The federal government seized state land by eminent domain and erected walls separating the U.S. and Mexican portions of the park. In-person gatherings were restricted, and surveillance towers were installed around the perimeter. 

If the construction of the border fence gets completed, what was once a beautiful vista filled with joy, family and love will become an ugly metaphor for the state of immigration policy in this country.

The most appalling thing about this move is that it’s completely unnecessary. Unauthorized border crossings at the park are easily controlled by onsite Border Patrol agents. There is no significant illegal drug trade or other criminal activity when the park is open to the public. And federal officials haven’t provided any evidence of public harm.

Instead, this one spot now represents the Biden administration reneging on its promise not to build new border walls

The only explanation is politics. With congressional Republicans preparing to investigate and possibly impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden may be looking to appear tough on immigration. 

But this move will satisfy no politician, not make anyone safer, and send a message of fear and intimidation to thousands of moms, dads, grandparents and children who simply want to connect with loved ones across the border.

A better solution is to repair the existing infrastructure, which is fully protective of the border and already familiar to families who visit the park. A forward-looking plan for Friendship Park is not just feasible, it’s already in the works.

At a more spiritual and moral level, Californians cannot give into the politics of hate, fear, exclusion and xenophobia. We need to do just the opposite. This is a critical moment in our nation’s history when the spirit and ethos of full inclusion and belonging as a human family must be asserted. 

Friendship Park should remain a place where people from the U.S. and Mexico come together to see each other and share time as friends and family.  

President Biden must reverse course. Instead of trying to placate the purveyors of anti-immigrant sentiment, love, friendship and family must be the prevailing message.

Minerva G. Carcaño is the board chair for The California Endowment. Dr. Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of the endowment. The authors wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.