The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At one border park, separated immigrant families hug across a steel divide

Gabriela Esparza, her back to the camera, hugs her mother and sister at Friendship Park. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

SAN DIEGO — Gabriela Esparza has a standing date on most Saturdays to talk to her mother, on a schedule that never changes. She drives down Interstate 5 and turns off into a sprawling wildlife habitat bounded by the beach and Pacific Ocean and an 18-foot galvanized metal fence that stretches as far as she can see.

She makes her way toward a small yard surrounded by steel mesh and waits until 10 a.m., when a U.S. Border Patrol agent opens a heavy gate. Her mother is on the other side, in Tijuana, Mexico, waiting to see her daughter through the checkered grate, perhaps to touch her fingertips. They stay as long as they can, until another family needs a turn or the agent in charge warns, “five more minutes,” and the gate is locked shut at 2 p.m.

This pen is Friendship Park, the only federally established binational meeting place along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico. For seven years, this meeting through the mesh was as close as Esparza, 23, could get to her mother and sister.

This weekend was different. Esparza and her 2-year-old son, Leonel, stood in line Saturday with others chosen to participate in a celebration of Children’s Day in Mexico. For only the third time, the emergency door on this portion of the border fence would open, and five families would have three minutes each to embrace.

To arrive at this moment, Esparza underwent a background check by the Border Patrol and then a second vetting by the nonprofit Border Angels, a migrant-advocacy group that started the brief open-border meeting in 2013. She crossed the desert with her mother when she was 8 to join her father, who already was in California. When Esparza was 16, her sister needed gall-bladder surgery, and lacking affordable medical options in the United States, her mother took her back to Mexico for treatment.

Without papers, they couldn’t get back in.

That left Esparza needing to live with relatives. After President Obama announced his executive order for young, undocumented immigrants in 2012, she got an employment card, but she can’t leave the United States.

Her long hours working at a company that leases cellphone towers left her little time to think about this reunion, where nearly a hundred people were gathered to watch her hug her mom.

Esparza closed her eyes and swallowed. It was the day before her birthday, but this was “more than a birthday present,” she said, tugging at the sleeve of her burgundy sweater. “It’s a blessing.”

Still, she was nervous. Less than 30 seconds for every year apart.

Before a crowd of reporters and photographers, three Border Patrol agents and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) lifted the door’s bulky, rusted lock and pulled — hard — to get it to slide open.

‘May there never be a wall’

Esparza’s journey joins her to tens of thousands of Latino families that have convened through the fence at Friendship Park, a place whose story changes depending on who is telling it.

To the community organizations that have fought to keep it open, Friendship Park is a space for intercultural exchange: shared communions, drum circles, even yoga classes across an increasingly fortified divide. It is a wish for immigration reform on physical display.

To the Border Patrol, Friendship Park is a goodwill gesture. Once accessible at all hours, it was closed when a secondary border fence was built in 2009, then reopened in response to protests.

And to the families that arrive week after week, many from distant parts of the state and without the necessary documents to freely cross the border, a trip to Friendship Park is best described as “agridulce,” the Spanish word for bittersweet.

The park has transformed since the summer of 1971, when then-first lady Pat Nixon walked up to threads of flimsy barbed wire and asked her security escort to cut an opening.

Nixon stepped easily into Tijuana, to the cheers of a crowd. This inaugurated Friendship Park, a spot so chosen for an obelisk marking the boundary established at the end of the U.S.-Mexico war in 1848. There are now 276 such monuments across the border; the one on the edge of San Diego was the first.

“May there never be a wall between these two great nations,” said the first lady. “Only friendship.”

On Saturday, 45 years later, the political figure at the fence was Vargas, the California congressman. “I’m here to support the families that have been broken up,” he said, evoking President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty act. “The current immigration system is very cruel. You can’t separate children from their parents.”

The weekend before the Children’s Day event, there were no TV crews or politicians at Friendship Park. For a while, there was just one woman who arrived minutes after the gate opened.

Wearing a long turquoise dress, high-heeled pumps and sparkling jewelry, she walked straight to where the silhouetted outlines of a man awaited her. This was Rosalina Ascencio Leon, 43, here to see her deported husband.

Neither made a big show of the reunion. Leon was a regular; she had been here last month. They started talking as if they were standing in their kitchen.

About a half-hour later, Leon was joined by a man visiting his wife, then by a couple pushing a stroller. By noon, a handful of families — one with collapsible lawn chairs — had stationed themselves by the fence and were peering into the other side.

Julian Rodriguez, 33, held his 6-month-old daughter up to the fence. His sister in Tijuana poked a finger through the mesh to meet the baby’s tiny thumb.

“It’s like having a piece of chocolate and not being able to eat it,” said Maria Teresa Fernandez, a local photographer who has been documenting the border for 15 years.

Sonia Roman, 35, studied her father’s face and decided he looked better than the last time. “The first time, I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I was just in shock. He was so skinny and aged. In my mind, I thought he was going to be the same as when he left.”

It was only the second time she had seen him since a speeding ticket turned into three months at a detention center, which turned into him resignedly signing his own “voluntary departure” almost a decade ago.

Back then, Francisco Hernandez, now 52, was working construction across the South and was rushing home to Pomona, Calif., when a police officer pulled him over, ran his name through the system and discovered that he didn’t have papers.

Now a two-hour drive and 30-minute hike had brought Roman a few inches of metal away from a father she barely recognized.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Roman said. “Would I rather not have to see him through the fence, where we can’t even touch or hug, or should I be thankful that I can see him at all?”

Leon, who had been standing at the mesh in her high heels for two hours, walked away from her husband in tears. “We broke up,” Leon said. “He don’t want to wait for me.”

Leon had crossed into the United States when she was 16 years old. “It was easy,” she said. “Now it’s hard.” After her sister’s ex-husband tried to run her over with a car, she obtained a visa reserved for victims of crimes on American soil. But it required her to wait two more years before she could visit Mexico without the risk of losing the visa.

And now, the couple had concluded, that was too long for a marriage to survive through the fence.

The border here is actually two fences. The first real barrier between San Diego and Tijuana was constructed as part of the Clinton administration’s Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, using steel airstrip landing mats from the Vietnam War. By 2009, a second fence was built parallel to 13 miles of the first’s 44-mile length. It is now crowned with razor wire and has stakes reaching into the ocean. A sophisticated network of motion sensors and surveillance cameras detects any movement that could indicate an illegal crossing.

All this has curtailed migrant activity in the area, where three decades ago the apprehensions comprised nearly half the nation’s total. It is estimated that 6,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the border since Operation Gatekeeper, which has reduced illegal entries by about 75 percent.

The latter figure is recited with pride by the agents stationed at Friendship Park, a coveted assignment among the detail because of the reprieve it offers from scouring empty mountains. Fluent in Spanish, the agents share an easy rapport with the visitors, all the while governing access to their families.

Agent Frank Alvarado, who grew up in San Diego, recalled that “as a kid, you could buy tacos through the fence.” Now he patrols it, charming tourists and talking superhero comics with one visiting 11-year-old boy.

He rejected the common refrain that Friendship Park is “like a jail.”

“People say it’s sad, but most of the time you see tears of joy,” Alvarado said. “It’s a very festive area. Who wouldn’t want to work where it’s always a party?”

“I’ll take you to eat churros and chamango,” Hernandez promised his daughter, if she ever could visit Tijuana. “There’s a really good place here.”

Juan Suarez, 50, whispered to his 11-year-old son through the barrier: “I love you, okay? Behave, okay? We’ll be together soon.”

The boy lingered as his father walked away, his small hands clutching the tall fence. Behind Suarez, an agent told another visitor: “Five minutes.”

Friendship Park, where separated loved ones meet at the U.S.-Mexico border

SAN YSIDRO, CA - AUGUST 24: Customs and Border Protection agent Rodney Feige shows his horse "Duece" to Mexican nationals along the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Border Field State Park August 24, 2006 in San Ysidro, California. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced on Wednesday that tough border security measures ordered by the Bush administration has significantly reduced the number of illegal immigrants entering from Mexico for the first time in several years. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

A door opens and shuts

“Three minutes,” Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, repeated to the crowd on Children’s Day. “Each family is going to have three minutes to hug.”

The lock on the gate finally gave way with a groan, to cheers and applause.

The families were lined up, and Alvarado checked their names off a list. “Sergio Graciano Paredes?” he said. No response. “Sergio? Doesn’t look like Sergio is here.”

The 19-year-old had driven for an entire night from the Bay Area to San Diego, only to be stalled on the wrong highway exit. His father, who traveled for more than a day by bus to arrive in Tijuana from central Mexico, was already waiting for him on the other side. But it was past noon, and the event was starting.

Alvarado shrugged. “That’s what the alternate is for.” A family who had been on the waiting list was ushered forward.

The door on the fence opened to reveal a canopy of cameras and microphones hovering over a wide-eyed elderly woman.

She was the mother of the first participant standing across the lawn on the U.S. side. As the daughter started walking toward the opening, the onlookers quieted to a hush.

The rest of the event proceeded in virtual silence. The Border Patrol agent who held the door turned her gaze to the sky, blinking back tears.

“I wanted to run,” Esparza later recalled of when her turn had arrived. The distance felt so long, and everyone was watching.

But then, there her mother was, clutching Esparza’s head, kissing her cheek. Her sister was there, too, putting her arms around Leonel.

“Stay strong,” Esparza sobbed.

Three minutes, and she felt a man’s hand on her shoulder. It was Morones, telling her time was up.