While local, national and international media delighted in the cross-border marriage through the open border gate at Friendship Park last month, federal agents with the U.S. Border Patrol were less than delighted.
In stories for the Washington Post, People magazine, Huffington Post, and local outlets, the groom, Brian Houston, told reporters he couldn't go to Mexico and his bride, Evelia Reyes, couldn't enter the U.S. — at least for Houston, it was true.
That's because Houston had surrendered his passport in March when he was released on bond after he was caught smuggling 43 pounds of heroin, 43 pounds of cocaine, and 47 pounds of meth across the border just a few miles east of the park. He pleaded guilty to three felony charges of smuggling and is awaiting sentencing set for January, according to federal court records.
The Border Patrol, meanwhile, may be reconsidering its arrangement with Enrique Morones, the founder of the Border Angels, who was the architect of the agreement that lets people who can't go to Mexico see their loved ones through the border fence.
Morones, they say, orchestrated the marriage and sprung the surprise on agents who are assigned every weekend to let people onto the federal land next to the fence. An official from the Border Patrol union says that the rank-and-file agents are angry about what happened.
"My guys feel that they were taken advantage of," said Christopher Harris, secretary of Local 1613, the National Border Patrol Council. "The most common theme [I hear] is that they had to publicly provide armed security for basically a cartel guy…. A propaganda coup for the bad guys."
Morones said he was surprised to learn that Houston is a convicted drug smuggler. He disputes the idea that he took advantage of the situation.
"I knew he had legal problems but I didn't know what," Morones said Friday (December 15th). "The Border Patrol does the background checks — I sent the names of people who want to be there when the gate opens and the Border Patrol sends me a list of people they approved."
Houston was on that list, Morones says. He warns applicants that they have to have some kind of legal status if they want to apply because the feds will be reviewing the applications.
"How in the world could I vet people?" he said. "I'm angry, too. Brian should have told us about his legal problems if they are that serious." He hasn't heard directly from the Border Patrol brass, he said. "I know they were upset [about the sudden decision to marry the pair], but we didn't do anything wrong."
According to Morones, the plan for the International Children's Day event were that Houston and Reyes would exchange rings through Morones. The wedding, he says was tentatively set for December 9th. But Houston and Reyes showed up dressed to marry, and a priest and a lawyer — both Friendship Park regulars — were ready to marry the couple.
"This is all good publicity for the Border Patrol," Morones said. "We don't need the publicity."
Agents who were at the park were opening the gate between countries for families to hug, as the federal agency has five times in the past few years. They were surprised to find Reyes standing there in a wedding gown — that they hadn't been told they would end up witnesses or participants in the short ceremony. More news media were present than usual for the event, held to celebrate the International Children's Day on November 20th.
"The U.S. Border Patrol did not know or have any advance knowledge of the wedding," San Diego sector chief Rodney Scott said. "This event would absolutely not have been approved and to be perfectly honest, this blatant disregard of trust has jeopardized any future opening of the border-wall door."
With Morones’s help, and with a lawyer for the bride and the groom on each side of the border, Houston and Reyes were married in a couple of minutes. Luna and Associates posted a video on their website saying "this couple is fighting for a future together."
Houston was arrested on February 28, 2017, when he used his SENTRI pass to enter the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. According to the federal charging sheet, a customs officer noticed “a strong chemical smell” and directed Houston and his silver Jetta to the search area where customs officers found 67 packages containing more than 130 pounds of meth, cocaine, and heroin in the doors, rear quarter-panels, and spare-tire compartment. Houston pleaded guilty to the charges in May.
The Border Patrol's local public affairs office did not immediately respond to requests for official comment.
Agents from the public affairs office have been opening the area between the primary border fence and the secondary fence — a 110-foot-wide stretch of land owned by the Department of Homeland Security. Both the gates on the primary and secondary fences are about 330 feet from the beach, with Las Playas de Tijuana on the south. It took years of meetings and persuasion from the Friends of Friendship Park to convince the feds to allow people past the secondary fence, which remains locked all but four hours on Saturday and Sunday.
The space between fences reopened in 2012 after a hydraulic gate was added to the secondary fence. The space between has hosted a TedX talk, a mariachi festival, marriage proposals, trans-border yoga, and concerts, as well as the annual Posada and children's day celebration and an annual religious pilgrimage that draws people from all over the U.S.
The Border Patrol first opened the primary fence's rusty gate in 2013, with then-mayor Bob Filner and then-girlfriend Bronwyn Ingram in attendance.