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Opinion published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 26, 2021

View of Friendship Park from Playas de Tijuana in August 2020. (Alexandra Mendoza / U-T en Español)

Donald Trump’s determination to build a “big, beautiful” wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has always been more about symbolism than substance.

“Build that wall!” was as much campaign slogan as policy proposal. And the 30-foot walls that federal contractors erected at sensitive locations along the border — including at Friendship Park, the historic meeting place just south of San Diego — are symbolic capstones to Trump’s tenure as president, not meaningful enhancements to our national security. Biden’s order to stop building the walls was welcome.

But this question remains: What symbolic action can Joe Biden take on the border to help achieve his stated goal of “making America respected around the world again”? How can Biden get out from under the shadow of Donald Trump’s border wall?

The answer can be found at Friendship Park itself, located at the westernmost end of the border, atop a mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the center of the park, a stone monument stands precisely on the international boundary, its base half in Mexico and half in the United States. Because this monument was the first of several hundred put in place in the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexico War, some people call Friendship Park “the birthplace of the border.”

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an end to that war, is officially entitled the “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the United Mexican States.” It opens with a call to establish “relations of peace and friendship ... wherein the two people should live, as good neighbors.”

Herein lies the symbolic power of Friendship Park — the peoples of the United States and Mexico are friends, not enemies, and they can once again become good neighbors to one another.

Joe Biden would not be the first president to recognize the symbolic potential of this historic location. On Aug. 18, 1971, then-first lady Pat Nixon inaugurated the U.S. side of Friendship Park as a California state park. On that occasion, Mrs. Nixon conveyed the hope shared by her husband Richard Nixon and high-ranking Mexican officials that the site would someday become “International Friendship Park.” After declaring, “I hope there won’t be a fence too long here,” Mrs. Nixon illustrated her point by stepping around the barbed-wire fence on the border to embrace an enthusiastic crowd in Mexico.

In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security took land from the state of California to build a system of double walls on the U.S. side of Friendship Park. The walls were erected in the waning months of George W. Bush’s second term, and were replaced in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

But across these years, local leaders in San Diego and Tijuana have kept the dream of Friendship Park alive, negotiating with Border Patrol officials to ensure the U.S. side of the border wall remains accessible for public events, ranging from intimate family reunions to binational gatherings and from religious services to concerts to yoga classes.

These same leaders — led by the San Diego-based architectural firm Public Architecture and Planning — have now launched a campaign to cast a vision for how a truly binational park would work at this historic location. People would enter International Friendship Park from either nation, circulate freely in shared public space, and then exit securely through what would become a pedestrian-only border crossing. The idea may seem far-fetched at first, but several such binational parks already exist on the border between the United States and Canada.

In the coming months, architects, artists and land-use professionals from both nations will participate in design competitions through this campaign, called “Build That Park!” The organizers plan to unveil their proposal this summer on the 50th anniversary of Pat Nixon’s inaugural visit to Friendship Park.

To be sure, the Biden administration faces enormous challenges related to law enforcement and human rights on the U.S.-Mexico border. But equally enormous is the challenge of re-establishing harmonious relations with Mexico and the rest of the world. There is no better place to make a symbolic statement in this regard than at Friendship Park.

Joe Biden’s public commitment to create a truly binational meeting place at this historic location would re-establish the history of the United States and Mexico on the solid foundation of relations of peace and friendship. It would also make clear for all the world to see that America’s true greatness springs not from bigger walls but from her commitment to live as a good neighbor among the community of nations.

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