A brief embrace through an opening in the border wall

In Friendship Park near San Diego, there’s a giant steel gate. And twice a year it swings open to allow families divided by immigration status to briefly reunite in person. The event is called Opening the Door of Hope.

Along the US – Mexico border near San Diego, there’s a place called Friendship Park. The border wall is accessible here. Anyone can walk up to it and talk to people on the other side. There’s also a service gate, which has been opened twice a year since 2013 to allow families divided by the border to meet and embrace.

Denisse Patton hugs her mom. Photo: Jenny Hamel

The gate-opening, an event called Opening the Door of Hope, was started by Enrique Morones, who founded Border Angels, a San Diego humanitarian organization. Families apply to participate and are then given three minutes together.

This past November, 11 families participated in the event. Among them were Vicente Saldana and his sister, Denisse Patton, both DACA recipients in their early 20s who hadn’t seen their mother for 11 years.

Their mom self-deported when they were kids for fear that she’d be forcibly deported, which would make it impossible for her to re-enter the US for 10 years. Her children were left to be raised by a family friend.

The siblings said they talk often with their mom, but that seeing the actual border fence was sobering.

“We’re happy we are here,” said Saldana. “But at the same time it makes you realize, you know, these other factors that come into play. We can’t really cross that border, she can’t really come to this side just yet. It’s definitely surreal.”

It took three Border Patrol guards to unlock the big bolt and pull the gate open.

Border Patrol agents open the gate. Photo: Jenny Hamel
Border Patrol agents at the gate. Photo: Jenny Hamel

There was a lot of press, both on the US and the Mexican side, making what should have been a very private moment into a very public one. Despite all of the pageantry, it was a beautiful moment for the families. Tears ran down their faces as they held each other tightly.

“You know, we got to hug her, we got to see her. But it was a little heartbreaking in that it was only a couple of minutes,” Patton said.

After their three minutes together, families walked to the portion of the fence in Friendship Park where you can speak through the thick metal mesh. It looked as if they were talking through prison bars.

However, that was the last time the gate would be opened.

Siblings Vicente Saldana and Denisse Patton talk to their mom through the fence. Photo: Jenny Hamel
Closeup of the fence. Photo: Jenny Hamel

Somehow, a man named Brian Houston slipped through the Border Patrol’s background check and was approved as a participant in this Door of Hope event. Earlier this year, Houston had been stopped while trying to run 150 pounds of cocaine, meth and heroin across the border from Mexico to the US.

During the Door of Hope event, Houston got married to a Mexican citizen under the gate’s arches and signed Mexican marriage documents.

Once it came to light that Houston was a convicted drug smuggler, a Border Patrol union representative said the agents were very embarrassed to have essentially provided security for a “cartel wedding.”

In December, Rodney Scott was named the Border Patrol Chief agent for the San Diego sector. According to Morones, Scott was not as friendly toward his Door of Hope mission.

In a statement, Scott did not mention the wedding, but said that “the maintenance gate will be used for maintenance purposes only.”

This stretch of the fence is accessible in Friendship Park. Photo: Jenny Hamel