TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - The United States has severely restricted access to a spot on the Mexican border where families and lovers divided by illegal immigration could unite briefly to hold hands or kiss through a fence.
In a move to stop undocumented migrants and the passing of narcotics through gaps in the U.S.-Mexico border fence between San Diego and Tijuana, the United States has fortified the area with a second fence to tighten security.
The Friendship Park on the Pacific Ocean became a place for cross-border weddings, church services, Christmas parties and even yoga classes when opened in 1971 by then U.S. first lady Pat Nixon.
Planned as a U.S. park with access for people on both sides of the frontier, picnic tables and swings were put out of Mexicans’ reach in 1994 when the United States raised a mesh fence to stop drug traffickers and illegal immigrants.
But families could sit on either side of the fence to kiss through it, talk and touch one another even as U.S. border agents nearby patrolled to keep out job-hungry illegal immigrants, terrorists and smugglers.
The fence became a popular spot for separated lovers who would pass notes on Valentine’s Day.
But the U.S. government’s second, larger barrier has sensors, lighting, radars and cameras on the edge of the park. Officials built a patrol road through it and fenced off access to the old mesh fence that abutted onto Mexico.
Work finished on the park fencing earlier this month, sealing off access for Mexicans on the U.S. side unless they take part in highly regulated visits.
“It was an act of cruelty,” said Katy Parkinson, a U.S. resident in Tijuana who runs a charity for immigrants. “Here, grandmothers met their grandchildren for the first time, they took photos, people could find each other again.”
The Border Patrol says those on the U.S. side can access the old Mexican fence for four hours on Saturdays and Sundays once vetted by agents in groups of up to 25 people.
“People can still meet at designated times,” said San Diego-based Border Patrol Agent Jose Morales.
“The second fence was needed because the first one was ... breached by smugglers and people passed drugs and fake IDs through it,” he added.
Nixon opened the park in Imperial Beach, California, in August 1971 as part of her efforts to promote U.S.-Mexican relations and, as she shook hands with Mexicans that day, was reported as saying “I hate to see a fence anywhere.”
The fence is part of the 661-mile double-layered wall along part of the United States’ 2,000-mile border with Mexico, built by the U.S. government.
“We will find a way to see each other,” said shop assistant Carmen, 29, whose husband lives illegally in Los Angeles and who used to meet regularly at the old park fence. “I can’t cross into the United States, I’ve been deported three times.”
Almost 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, live and work in the United States, including millions of Mexicans.
Since the Sept 11 attacks in the United States, political pressure for tighter border controls has grown sharply. Supporters of the border fence say Mexico’s violent drug war that has killed more than 15,000 people since late 2006 makes it all the more necessary to keep criminals out.
But some border experts say the fence does not stop those trying to get into the United States and only makes it more dangerous. Some 5,600 people have died trying to cross into the United States from Mexico since the U.S. government increased border security in 1994, human rights groups say.
Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey