By Jonathan Horwitz

Written April 2019

Most gardens have fences around them. Dan Watman’s has a fence running through it. The eighteen-foot-tall barrier that splits his garden in half belongs to the U.S. Government. It is the U.S.-Mexican border wall.

Gardening across the border presents numerous challenges. Simply moving from one half of a planter to the other becomes an intrepid feat. In the past, Watman would swim around the border barrier with his tools. Then, one day, he got tackled by a U.S. Border Patrol agent and agreed to stop doing that. The garden, accessible from Border Field State Park on the U.S. side, is several hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Nowadays, Watman will hail a taxi to the sanctioned border crossing and walk through U.S. customs legally. From there, he will have an American friend drive him to Border Field State Park. The whole ordeal can take hours.

Watman, an American citizen living in Tijuana, seldom maintains the American side of the garden. His limited visits have nothing to do with time and everything to do with strict law enforcement. He has an unspoken agreement with Border Patrol that permits him to access the American side of the garden no more than twice per month and under supervision of multiple Border Patrol agents.

“Generally, the biggest challenge to maintain the garden is dealing with Border Patrol,” Watman said.

In 2007, Watman created the binational garden as a place for people to gather and learn each other’s languages. At the time, he was a Spanish lecturer at California Western School of Law.

“I didn’t consider myself an activist. I just wanted people to get to know each other and teach language,” Watman said. “Like learning a new language, the garden was supposed to be about reaching across borders and debunking stereotypes.”

Over the years, his vision for the garden has evolved. “It became a symbol of holistic border management,” he said. “Not everything is about enforcement. The humanitarian and environmental aspects of the border matter, as well.”

Nevertheless, the American border narrative has not changed over time according to him. “It’s all about enforcement, and it always has been,” he said.

When he started the garden in 2007, a chain-link fence separated the U.S. and Mexico. Two years later, U.S. Border Patrol built a secondary fence. Access to the garden was restricted. But thanks to an unspoken agreement with Border Patrol agents, Watman was able to keep his plants alive. “We planted native plants to represent the natural border environment in contrast to the unnatural, metallic fence.”

In 2012, Border Patrol replaced the primary chain-link fence with the eighteen-foot-tall rebar barrier that stands today. “They gave me one month’s notice to move the plants before construction,” Watman said. Students, community members, and activists helped him transplant dozens of native plants to a garden bed in Tijuana. After construction finished, they moved the plants back to the border. 40 percent survived the double transplant. At the time, Border Patrol Agent Rodney Scott oversaw enforcement of the Imperial Beach District and the garden. In good faith, he and his son helped to build a new planter on the U.S. side of the fence. Now, Scott is the Chief Patrol Agent for the San Diego Sector.

Under his direction, Border Patrol has been installing a 30-foot primary fence across the San Diego Sector. According to Watman, he and Agent Scott have an unspoken agreement that Border Patrol will not replace the barrier at the garden.

However, Border Patrol refuses to commit to any policy. “Because the garden is within a border security enforcement zone, we may without prior notice change rules and guidelines,” wrote Agent Krisanne Hernandez.

For now, the binational garden lives on, but its health is in question. It’s either on life support or it’s thriving, depending on who you ask and where you stand.

On the one hand, with no visitors or volunteers, the American side can seem desolate. One Border Patrol agent wrote, “It is nothing much more than area grown weeds, not what I would call a garden.”

On the other hand, the Mexican side is lively. In addition to the native plants, Watman grows a dozen irrigated planters full of lettuce, carrots, and herbs. He and four other volunteers maintain the garden at least twice a week. Every Sunday, they harvest a salad big enough for several churchgoers who hold a sermon at the border. Even more volunteers come weekly to paint colorful murals on the rebar fence. Children walk through the garden, and Watman teaches them about the environment. His dog, Galo, roams freely, his tail-wagging.

Ultimately, Watman and the other volunteers share a vision for a binational park similar to Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada Border. “There is no wall at Peace Arch Park. That does not mean there is no enforcement. There are Border Patrol agents there, and it is also a humane space where people can meet peacefully,” Watman said.

Their consortium of NGOs, Friends of Friendship Park, has hired an architect from Harvard University to design a wall-less park around the garden. “Change the infrastructure,” Watman said, “and you encourage people to come together.”

Yet, the border fence keeps getting taller. The U.S. immigration rhetoric sharper. The enforcement regime stricter. Watman’s vision of a binational park seems more fallacy than fortune. But his garden has lived through three presidential administrations and multiple fence designs. If it can continue to hold out, then there is no saying what the future holds in store. For now, it is a sliver of vegetation along the 2000-mile desert border. Maybe, one day it will be something greater. Or, maybe it won’t.

Jonathan Horwitz is a graduate fellow in journalism at the University of Southern California