Dark metal slats, like stitches down the hillside, divide Imperial Beach, California, and Tijuana, Mexico.
On this U.S. edge is a California state park, and a quick walk down the bluff is the grey Pacific with miles of empty sand. A hazy San Diego skyline peers above the bay, 15 miles to the north. On the other side of the metal slats — which are topped with barbed wire and cameras — the beach in Tijuana is busy with quick-fingered drummers, rainbow beach umbrellas and parents scooping toddlers away from the ocean’s lapping tongue.
Through the fence they look like shadow puppets. The filtered light allows only flickering outlines of human shapes until a young boy sticks his face between the posts and the direct sunlight stretches him into three dimensions. Other limbs soon emerge through the gaps: a girl’s hand, a teenager’s foot, a middle-aged man offering a bottle of beer.
It’s Father’s Day. While the U.S. beach is empty, a few families have come to crouch by the fence. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday, Border Patrol allows visitors — usually required to stay far back from the barrier — right up against the metal. Except here in what's called Friendship Park, the fence is reinforced with tightly woven metal cords leaving holes only large enough for the tip of the smallest finger.
When former first lady Pat Nixon inaugurated Friendship Park in August 1971, only a few strands of barbed wire sliced the two countries apart. Then in 1996, it became the first link of what is now called "the border wall" when a 14-mile triple-layered fence was built along the beach.
More than 20 years later, the wall at Friendship Park represents only a fraction of the 700 miles constructed along the 1,954-mile border between the United States and Mexico.
But despite all the federal government has installed here since -- the cameras, the electric sensors, the armed border guards milling about — this particular stretch of dusty ground remains a place of plucky, near-defiant connection, especially for families desperate for contact.
Two or three Californian families have arrived early and set up for the day with folding chairs, blankets, grocery bags of food. A middle-aged woman with heavy-drawn eyebrows presses against two short, children-shaped shadows in the mesh. After a few minutes she turns, leaning her back on the barrier, and holds up her phone on a video call. The two small blobs on the Tijuana side yell through the fence, “Hi Grandma!”
A man presses his face to the mesh just breaths away. He appears as just a single bright, googly eye.
This light brown eye is Hector Bramasco Escareño, 44, who waits at the fence every weekend to practice his English with tourists from all over the world: Germany, Australia, Japan. He used to commute across the port of entry every weekday to take English classes at Chula Vista Adult School, seven miles north of the border. But when he applied eight years ago to renew his tourist visa he was rejected.
“The last time I went to ask for a tourist visa they said no because I had to have a good job,” he says. “But here in Tijuana, I can’t afford to have a good job,” meaning he can’t afford the education that would allow him one, he explains. He hasn’t been to the U.S. since.
Still, he dreams of opening his own business in Tijuana to teach Spanish to American tourists. “Language is my passion,” Escareño says. In the meantime, he works odd jobs and vlogs about Mexican politics under the Youtube username Speedy Gonzalez Tequila Jalisco.
“I don’t agree with the Mexican government, because the last government, they killed people,” he said, referring to former president Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office at the end of November 2018. Amnesty International called Nieto’s legacy “one of the worst human rights crises in the entire hemisphere,” and estimated 22,000 people were “disappeared” under his six-year administration.
The metal divider before Escareño is worn, perhaps by too many cheeks pressed against this spot, trying for a clearer view. Escareño says goodbye, extending a long-nailed pinky finger through the mesh in what’s known here as a “pinky kiss.”
A Border Patrol agent monitoring the visitors keeps a headcount by tallying a scrap of paper tucked inside a paperback book. By 12:45 pm, he has drawn slashes for 25 family members and 35 tourists. He says this is typical.
In the last half hour of the visitation period, two pastors meet at the fence to lead a church service together. Since 2011, Border Church, or La Iglesia Fronteriza, has met at the fence every Sunday for prayer, sermons and communion. The pastors stand across from each other trading off who leads and who translates, a woven cadence of English and Spanish. Father’s Day is no exception to this weekly meeting, but no one on the U.S. side of the fence appears to be paying attention to Pastor Seth Clark. A dozen or so remain intently perched at the mesh, engrossed in conversation, soaking up their last few minutes with whomever they have come here to meet.
“A special thank you to all the fathers here today, especially fathers who have been separated from their families due to immigration laws,” Clark says. He’s only 33, wearing a droopy woven cowboy hat and red plastic sunglasses with his black collar unbuttoned. “We pray to you, Father, for their families.”
A can of Welch’s grape juice, which he poured just minutes ago into a wooden chalice, pokes out the front pocket of a backpack, which is slumped in the dust at his feet. There are dozens of people gathered on the Tijuana side of Friendship Park, and they move forward en masse when the pastors ask them to lay their hands on the mesh.
“With our hands on the wall, we confess,” Clark says to them. “We have not always been a people of hospitality. We confess these big systems in our government and in our world don’t always treat people with hospitality.”
Tijuana congregants line up for communion. On the opposite side of the fence, one last family arrives a few yards away.
20-year-old David Aguiar, wearing a thick gold chain and manicured scruff, is taller than either of his parents. Aguiar is a “Dreamer,” for the moment, still protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. His parents entered the United States illegally with their three sons when David was just 2. David’s oldest brother, Juan Jose, who is now 28, was deported a few years before DACA began, when he was about David’s current age. At the time, Juan Jose was still living with his parents and brothers.
“It all happened out of nowhere,” David says. “We didn’t get to say goodbye.”
David lives with his parents and works as an Uber driver and a chef at Buffalo Wild Wings, which he jokingly calls “B-dubs.” David’s parents work in landscaping and are still undocumented.
Juan Jose is now also an Uber driver, but in Tijuana, and has two children. David has only ever met his niece and nephew through the mesh at Friendship Park.
“We came to see the boy when he was like a baby, and now he’s 7 or 8 years old,” he says. “It’s sad, seeing them grow up just touching pinkies and never having contact with them. I never got to hold him as a baby. I’ve never gotten to hug him.”
It was years after Juan Jose was deported before a friend from their church told his mother about visitation at Friendship Park. She wanted to go but feared it was a trap to lure her to law enforcement and deportation. She asked her two younger sons, both now afforded greater protections under DACA, to check it out.
“The very first time we came to visit here, we were scared,” David said. “My parents didn’t come because it’s more of a risk for them than it is for us.”
But that first visit was a relief. Most weekends since, the family has driven two hours each way to visit with Juan Jose.
“We came literally for the last 20 minutes because my dad works late,” David said, bracing against gusts of wind on the near 2-mile walk back to the parking lot. He runs his fingers along the chain around his neck.
“But as long as we get to see him, it’s worth it.”