What Trump's 'Big, Fat, Beautiful' Mexico Wall Will Look Like

Eight prototypes exist for the wall between the U.S. and Mexico that Trump promised to build. Some architects are condemning the project as a moral abomination, while others have put forward creative design ideas

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The prototypes of Trump's Mexico border wall.
The prototypes of Trump's Mexico border wall.Credit: Assaf Evron
Noya Kohavi
Noya Kohavi

SAN DIEGO – Like color swatches in a paint store, eight proposals for a wall between the United States and Mexico spring from the earth in the desert between San Diego and Tijuana. If we could wrench them from their context, you might think they were conceptual art: eight squares, 30 feet (9.1 meters) on each side, spaced nine meters apart; one is brown, another gray, a third, blue; some are made of concrete, others of steel. The desert surroundings – half-bare hills, birds of prey cruising nonchalantly above – add a potent dose of drama.

But thinking about the project in simply visual terms requires effort. Another glance and the eye is drawn to the two fences that constitute the existing border. One is low and rusting, the other newer and replete with patched-up holes. And right on the other side, almost leaning against the fence, are the buildings of Tijuana.

In his election campaign and afterward, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. When he asked riled-up crowds, “Who will pay for the wall?” they roared back, “Mexico!” A year has passed since his inauguration, and in the meantime Mexico has repeatedly declared that that’s not going to happen. Nor has Congress, despite its Republican majority, made available the required budget to build such a barrier – something whose cost is estimated between $20 billion and $44 billion.

But when a call for proposals to build a prototype for the wall was put out by the Customs and Border Protection agency, hundreds of companies responded. Funding for this initial stage was provided by the Department of Homeland Security, which was established after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and in the intervening years has become the largest enforcement agency in the United States. Six companies were selected. Four of them created one prototype each, and two built two prototypes. The cost of each model ranges from $320,000 to $470,000.

Trump promised to invest $500 billion over five years on infrastructure projects. On the day following the 2016 election, the CEO of the American Institute of Architects, Robert Ivy, issued a letter of support for the president-elect. He promised that the association’s 90,000 or so architects would cooperate with the new administration. But many of them were appalled at Ivy’s pledge, particularly against the background of Trump’s biggest infrastructure promise: a coast-to-coast wall stretching along the 3,200 kilometers of the border with Mexico. Though Ivy later qualified his statement and tried to appease enraged members of the AIA by re-committing to the organization’s ethics code, several of them went on to become active opponents of the wall.

Universal suspects

It was a quiet morning on the U.S. side of the border, near San Diego, where the prototypes were erected. Only one officer from the U.S. Border Patrol, who was revving up an all-terrain vehicle while cruising the area between the two fences, was causing a rumpus. We were accompanied by agents Vinny Pirro and Saul Roche from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Soft-spoken and affable, they offered numerous recommendations for Mexican food on both sides of the border for whose security they are responsible.

Agents Vinny Pirro and Saul Roche from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show the ladders used by immigrants to cross the fence.Credit: Assaf Evron

The CBP was scheduled to begin testing and evaluation of the prototypes about a month after the concrete was cast, this past December. But the federal government has yet to announce the results of the testing, and isn’t committed to choosing any of them. According to Pirro, after the tests, the government can commission a combination of several of the models, or the one that proves most effective. Moving from prototype to prototype, he points out the advantages of each. Mostly, though, he tries to imagine how difficult it will be for anyone who tries to traverse the new obstacle. Some are designed especially to prevent climbing, others subterranean digging, still others breaking through.

“Take this one here,” Pirro says, pointing to a model with a particularly broad base. “You see how thick it is? There’s no hammer you can buy in Home Depot that can break through that.” He adds, “Think of how much time it would take you to chip away at this, the power tools you’d need.” On top of which, Roche adds, forging that hypothetical breach would also create a lot of noise, attracting the attention of patrolling agents.

As for the great height, especially as compared to other, existing walls, it’s mainly intended as a psychological deterrent. “If you come from the other side and try to cross over to this side, what you mostly see is something big.”

Still, the two agents note, a wall is only intended to be one element of the enforcement strategy. Already today there are cameras, all-night stadium lights, sensors embedded in the earth and of course federal agents who patrol the border.

Until the 1990s, the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Diego region – which today includes the busiest border crossing in the world – was marked by a pile of three coils of barbed wire on the ground. Convoys of cars could break through easily, Pirro and Roche say.

The primary fence in place today was built by the Clinton administration in 1994, as part of an effort called Operation Gatekeeper. In addition to beefing up the policing activity in the San Diego-Tijuana region, the authorities used corrugated steel landing mats left over from the Vietnam War to fashion a fence. Today each of the rusting plates is conspicuously numbered so the Border Patrol can be summoned to specific locations more easily. On the Mexican side, the Tijuana cityscape reaches right up to the fence, whereas on the northern side there’s a wide dirt trail, then the secondary fence. The latter was erected several years later from hard-to-climb metal netting, and is five meters high. North of the secondary fence is desert, frequently patrolled in all-terrain vehicles, and beyond that is San Diego, California, known for its surfer-packed beaches, Mexican food modified for the American palate and its zoo.

Concluding the tour, Pirro and Roche show us long ladders made from thin metal rods, which migrants bend into wheels in order to roll them to the border, at which point they get off, straighten the ladders, and lean them on the fence, so they can climb up and over. If there’s barbed wire on the edge of the fence, the first one to reach the top throws a carpet over it. Roche shows us ladders that have been seized, demonstrating their flexibility, while Pirro shows us patches in the secondary fence. It may be tricky to climb, but it’s easy to cut through – less than a minute’s work with a power saw. The holes are small, less than a meter in diameter. There are welded patches along the entire length of the fence we saw, every few meters.

Though there are still daily attempts to cross the border in the San Diego area, the construction of the main and secondary fences has forced many would-be migrants to abandon urban border-crossing sites in favor of remote mountainous and desert regions – something that has brought about the death of many of them. According to U.S. immigration authorities, during the first seven months of 2017, 232 people died while trying to cross the border illegally. Overall, however, there has been a steady decline in the number of people attempting to enter the United States from its neighbor to the south: from about 1,100,000 per year apprehended at the beginning of the 1990s, to some 290,000 caught in the act last year.

“The record shows that barriers and technology do help us to mitigate the threats,” says Roche. “Our concern is the smuggling of both drugs and people, depending on the area. But our main threat, our main priority, is terrorism.”

Have you had terror incidents here?

Roche: “Over here in the San Diego sector, I don’t think there’s been any.”

“Nothing sells more for Democrats and Republicans politically than telling the American people that we are protecting you from a terrorist attack,” says Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, an umbrella organization of about 60 groups that operate along the border from San Diego in the west to Brownsville, Texas, in the east. Ramirez, who holds dual citizenship, grew up in Tijuana and now lives in San Diego.

“In Washington, both parties have adopted this narrative that the border region is out of control and that this is sort of a lawless land, which can only be controlled by an iron-fist approach, even if it means militarizing the region,” he observes. “El Paso, Texas, which neighbors Juarez – arguably one of the most violent cities in the world – is the safest city in the United States, with the lowest crime rate. And San Diego, too, has consistently been one of the 10 safest cities in the country for the past 15 years. So, when we’re told that the main mission of Customs and Border Protection is to protect us from terrorism or terrorist threats, that essentially means that all of us who live in this region are suspects and are viewed as suspects – and that means the erosion of our civil rights as American citizens.

The secondary fence between the U.S. and Mexico.Credit: Assaf Evron

“Even a lot of folks inside the States don’t know that along the southern border we don’t enjoy the same liberties that the rest of the country does,” he continues. “We can’t leave our communities without being questioned by federal agents. [Checkpoints that stop vehicles are scattered throughout the border area, at crossing points between counties and states.] If I want to take my 3-year-old son to Disneyland, I have to go through a checkpoint, and because of the color of my skin, I know that it’s very likely I will be questioned. And how ironic that we’re militarizing a boundary with our second-largest trading partner, Mexico.

“But probably the biggest irony is that instruments of war are being used to control a socioeconomic issue, namely migration. Are there security threats to our region? Without a doubt, this is a huge region, and the arms trade, the money laundering, the drug smuggling and now unfortunately human smuggling are part of the reality here. But what we’re doing policy-wise in this country is to lump immigrants and refugees in the same category as gunrunners and drug smugglers, and in that mix we’ve given this agency so much authority that the 50 million people who live on the American side of the border are under a constant threat of being racially profiled. Or worse – of being seriously hurt and sometimes killed by overzealous Border Patrol agents.”

The Trump administration, Ramirez adds, “has sort of revived the old rhetoric that migrants are somehow eroding the American identity, particularly if they’re brown. Let’s talk about the push-and-pull factors that allowed for the free flow of capital and the free flow of goods, but have restricted the ability of workers to do the same.”

Architects against Trump

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump instructed the relevant agencies to start planning the border wall. Almost immediately, a number of state and municipal authorities announced that they would boycott any firm that took part in the construction. Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond in California, and Tucson, Arizona, were among the many towns that passed regulations to block the employment of contractors involved in the wall project, and many other cities, including New York, put forward similar suggestions, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

“Companies have a choice: Help build the wall, a monument to racism and bigotry, or do business in New York City,” Letitia James, the city’s public advocate (an elected official whose job is to serve as liaison between the public and city government), said last March. The trade unions, too, were quick to respond. The Associated General Contractors of America called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prevent state and city governments from boycotting contractors and companies that would take part in building the wall. “The group also wants assurances that local authorities will provide reasonable protection for workers and equipment on job sites, as well as contractor reimbursement for security costs or damage from vandalism,” according to the Bloomberg report.

Although the American Institute of Architects tried to walk back its letter of support and congratulations to Trump, that was only after some of the organization’s members expressed their dismay at the gesture. One of the most outspoken of them was architect and writer Michael Sorkin. In an open letter of his own, titled “Architecture Against Trump,” Sorkin wrote, “Architects and other designers working in the built environment have special insight into both the mentality and the behavior of Donald Trump, who has gained his fortune as a builder, developer, and brander of architecture.

“While the work that bears his name is of decidedly mixed formal quality, the circumstances surrounding both its social and physical construction are troublesome to say the least. Trump’s well-documented history of racial discrimination, tenant harassment, stiffing creditors (including architects), evasive bankruptcies, predilection for projects of low social value – such as casinos – and his calculated evasion of the taxes that might support our common realm, are of a piece with his larger nativist, sexist, and racist political project.”

Speaking by phone from New York, Sorkin told me, “I think that the profession should behave ethically in all sorts of contexts – this is certainly one of them. To the degree that architects and designers are implicated in the fabrication of this nightmare, I think they need to be called out in the same way that I’ve written about relatively recently, [with regard to] architects who design maximum-security prisons, solitary confinement, gas chambers and the whole nine yards, and I would certainly put this [the wall] in the same category.”

In conjunction with two students, Peggy Deamer, a professor of architecture at Yale, wrote an open letter to architects calling on them to reflect their moral posture through their work. Deamer is the founder of the Architecture Lobby, a new organization that promotes the values of architecture among the public and the status of those in the profession. The lobby’s central argument is that as long as architecture suffers from exploitative work practices – in the office and at construction sites – it will not be acting for the benefit of the public at large.

For many architects, Deamer and the students wrote in the journal Architectural Record, the AIA and its response to the bidding process reflect a profession that has become passive in regard to its moral purpose. “Particularly at a time when infrastructure seems to threaten more harm than good, our profession has failed in its task to show the public that we are more than ambulance chasers,” they asserted. “Architecture is fundamentally a political and social act, and capitulation to opportunism will only precipitate further loss of identity and potential. The act of designing and building our physical landscape comes with significant responsibilities. Architecture foremost must improve the lives of the people it serves, and it must be active in creating environments that promote justice and equal opportunity. It should dismantle social barriers rather than erect them.”

Monstrous and dumb

In his election campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to build not just any wall, but a “big, fat, beautiful wall.” Indeed, the terms of the call for bids to create prototypes stipulate that the northern side of the fence – the part that will be visible inside the United States – must be aesthetically pleasing in its color scheme, texture and so forth. So, it was no surprise that, when the results were made public, comparisons were made between the aesthetic qualities of the eight submissions. For example, a New York Times article last November analyzed the eight models on the basis of the materials they’re made of and went into details about the fine texture on the American side as opposed to the sheer concrete of the Mexican side. The model made of steel and concrete and painted blue was deemed to possess “more aesthetics,” as against sand-colored panels of exposed concrete, which were deemed to have “fewer aesthetics.”

The Mexico border wall prototype designed by Caddell Construction.Credit: Assaf Evron

Sorkin refuses to take part in that discussion. “As a matter of principle, I would decline to speak about the prototypes as visual objects, because I don’t think their meaning inheres in their appearance,” he says. “They are evidence of something invidious, and somehow to speak of them in aesthetic terms is a distraction – a reduction, an evisceration of the real meaning of the project. I read a number of accounts that rise to the occasion of trying to assess whether the tube on the top is nice or whether the more transparent one is somehow less meritorious, blah blah.” Summing up: “These are truly invidious fine distinctions, distinctions without a difference.”

In 2005, Sorkin served as editor of a collection of essays, “Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace,” which featured contributions by Suad Amiry, Ariella Azoulay, Rebecca Solnit and Eyal Weizmann, among others. The pieces critique the Israeli separation fence on the basis of historical, judicial and architectural criteria.

Both walls are “invidious,” Sorkin says, noting that one of the prototypes for the U.S.-Mexico wall was built by an Israeli firm. Both walls, he continues, are “unbelievably freighted symbolically and are the quintessence of the ugly, which I take to be a social rather than an aesthetic category. They share the quality of being an instrument by which a particular other is invented as threatening and dangerous. I guess if I were looking for a difference, it would be that the Israeli wall is also meant to do the work of territorial aggrandizement in a way that exceeds the ambition of the Trump wall – I see that as the principal difference: the somewhat greater ambitions of the Israeli wall.”

The United States, Sorkin notes, has experience in using the tools of planning to create separation from the “other.” Indeed, “we’re not exactly aliens to penalizing people for their otherness and surrounding them by walls, be it the strategic hamlets [built by the United States in Vietnam], or the Japanese concentration camps in the World War II” for Americans of Japanese background, built on American soil.

As for Trump, who’s now been in office for a year, “he is somehow qualitatively more monstrous than many of his predecessors,” says Sorkin. “He is simultaneously monstrous and fatuous, to the degree that he is impressed by the quantitative, the business of faking the height of his buildings and claiming to have attracted the largest [inauguration] crowd in the history of consciousness. That’s his rhetorical style. Even to ascribe beliefs to a man of such small intellectual capacity is difficult. He’s shown himself completely incapable of expressing an argument that isn’t pure prejudice.”

Subversive designs

International borders, fences and walls are fertile ground for subversive design. Last April, the architect and researcher Ronald Rael, from the University of California, Berkeley, published “Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.” Rael doesn’t support the building of a barrier, but acknowledges its existence, and argues that it’s possible “to smuggle design into it.” The book contains suggestions for such things as a wall made exclusively of local cacti, a wall that’s a mammoth musical instrument, one to which solar panels can be affixed and other ideas.

Prof. Rael is not alone. At least two design firms have published proposals that are intended to subvert the concept of a U.S.-Mexico border wall even as they constitute a functional barrier. Miami-based Domo Design Studio, which is known for its luxury-hotel designs, has suggested building the wall from used shipping containers, which in urban areas can double as shopping centers, art spaces and even residences. Jake Matatyaou and Kyle Hovenkotter, from the JuneJuly design practice, have put forward a concept that includes cameras and projected videos on both sides of the border, to let people on either side see each other and also to see people in other cities, such as New York and Mexico City. The aim: to subvert the separation that inheres in a wall and to transform it into a point of connection. During an interview of the two in The Los Angeles Times last March, Matatyaou said, “If we begin with the fact that we’re building a hard border, something physical and material, and that it will be built, we start with the question, ‘What is an aesthetically, humanitarianly minded thing?’”

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility is a U.S.-based group focused on asserting the ethical responsibilities of these professions and promoting ecological and socially just design practices. It has some 750 members and has been active since 1981. The organization’s president, Raphael Sperry, takes a vigorous stand against the supposedly subversive design efforts for the wall.

The prototypes of Trump's Mexico border wall.Credit: Assaf Evron

“Some of those who claim to be ‘alternative’ aren’t doing any of that. Adding solar panels to walls that continue to separate the United States and Mexico and will continue to push people to more dangerous border crossing routes is not an alternative the ADPSR would approve of. It’s not much of an alternative at all,” he told me, speaking by phone from San Francisco.

In recent years, Sperry’s organization has concentrated on discouraging the planning and design by architects of cells for solitary confinement, torture facilities and execution chambers. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration per capita in the world (700 of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars; China does not report its rate).

“Our point was about the quality of the space: You can’t make a better prison and improve the situation for someone who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” says Sperry. “If we’re taking away their freedom and giving them a carpet and a better acoustical environment, that doesn’t make up for the fundamental injustice. That conversation has lasted for many years, and it’s still very hard to make architects understand that making a better prison doesn’t make up for putting somebody in jail who shouldn’t be there.

“But the flip side of that is: What should we design – what should we do? And we’ve created a program called Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, which is now an independent nonprofit, a design development firm that works on spaces for restorative justice, for transitional housing, community courts... It tries to design buildings and spaces that will transform the criminal justice system.”

In Sperry’s view, “Some politically motivated projects require professionals to behave unethically. And that’s our concern about the border wall, that’s our concern about execution chambers. For Haaretz readers, one wishes that German engineers would have thought about their ethics when laying out all the apparatus for the Holocaust. There’s plenty of engineering and design involved in crematoria and a rail network and so forth.”

Third nation

The building of a border fence began in the 1990s in San Diego and progressed eastward. Presently, about a third of the border has such a barrier. That fact, together with the ever-dwindling number of illegal border crossings, might be a consideration in Congress’ decision about whether to budget the construction of a Trump-style wall. Despite the president’s declarations until very recently, to the effect that Mexico would pay for the fence, he has apparently abandoned that plan.

In late December the president tweeted that if Congress did not authorize funds for the wall, he would refuse to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated under President Obama, which allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to declare themselves to the authorities and receive temporary permits that allow them to attend school and work legally. There are some 690,000 young people in this category, and their predicament has garnered them cross-party public support. The ultimatum proved to be unsuccessful, and contributed to a three-day government shutdown that ended earlier this week, with no funding for the wall nor a decision on DACA. And while a federal judge in California temporarily blocked the government from ending the program, its future is still uncertain.

There are other technical considerations that could scuttle the project, not least the fact that two-thirds of the border is in Texas and much of the land is privately owned. State officials have objected to the building of the wall and been vehemently opposed to the possible expropriation of private property. In 2008, the federal government tried something similar and was battered with hundreds of lawsuits for its pains.

The effectiveness of the wall in preventing the entry of migrants without residency permits and in blocking drug smuggling is also in doubt. The majority of those who are in the United States illegally – about 66 percent of them, according to estimates of the Center of Migration Studies, a New York-based think tank – entered legally, with a visa, and remained after it expired. According to data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, a branch of the Justice Department, the majority of drugs smuggled into the country reach consumers via recognized border crossings, hidden in vehicles or on the body of persons entering the country legally.

Those could be some of the reasons for the fact that most Americans apparently have no desire to see the project implemented. According to a survey conducted early last year by Quinnipiac University, six of every 10 American voters were against building a wall on the border with Mexico. A Fox News survey from May 2017 showed that only three of every 10 Americans – 72 percent of them Trump voters – want a wall built. Only 36 percent believe that it will be built, and a paltry 10 percent believe that Mexico will pay for it. Most also don’t believe that Congress will allocate the resources for the project.

One of those who think that the wall will not be built is architect Michael Sorkin – “simply because it will never accomplish its nominal ambition, it will be easily circumvented, and cool heads will point out that this is 4,000-year-old technology and there’s probably another way to accomplish the same thing.” He adds, “I don’t know that swarms of drones and land mines are necessarily a different policy. It’s a more technological form of evil stupidity.”

A poster in the office of Christian Ramirez, from the Southern Border Communities Coalition, shows a Native American pointing at the viewer and asking, “Who’s the illegal alien, Pilgrim?” – a reminder of the blood-drenched history of settlers’ westward expansion in America. Until the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, large swaths of what is today the southwestern U.S. were still part of Mexico – among them California, Nevada, Utah and parts of today’s Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. To this day, there are families in these states who can trace their origins to the neighbor to the south. Border cities like Juarez and El Paso, or Nogales in Arizona, which existed before the international boundary was created, were themselves divided by it: part remained in Mexico, the rest in the U.S.

“The sense of being binational and bicultural has always been a reality here,” Ramirez says. “And I think that despite the wall building and the militarization of the region, the sense of being one community divided in half hasn’t dissipated. I remember as a boy crossing the beach from the San Diego side to the Tijuana side, as it was one community. Now you go and there’s a wall that goes into the Pacific Ocean, so you can’t do that anymore.”

According to Ramirez, there is a “moral obligation to address this issue of our unwillingness to acknowledge that we are an integrated continent, that these boundaries and borders are in many ways artificial.” He speaks of “growing pains that we’re going through, a region that has learned to live divided, and at the same time overcome those divisions through art, culture, ecumenical exchange.” Like him, he notes, “many border residents in the region have both a Mexican passport and an American one, carry Mexican and American currency in their wallet and can communicate in English and Spanish. That has created a fully integrated binational region that exemplifies what the world should look like.”

Ramirez describes the situation as “a third nation that’s growing out of the tension between two nation-states whose citizens refuse to acknowledge that we are fully integrated and that economic integration is not only for the elites but is for everyone.”

All told, about 50,000 people pass through the border station between Tijuana and San Diego every day. Some cross over to get to work or school. The process is quicker when traveling into Mexico, but it still can take several hours. This flow of traffic is the result of decades during which closer cooperation existed between the two countries on issues relating to employment. From 1941 until 1964, the United States and Mexico implemented the Bracero Program, its name deriving from the Spanish term for “manual laborer.” The program, which was meant to respond to a shortage of American workers during World War II and afterward, allowed Mexican farmers and professionals in various fields to work in the United States legally. At the height of the program, about 400,000 workers entered the United States every year; all told, some five million visas were issued in its framework. Some of the laborers remained in the United States permanently on a legal basis.

Ramirez is closely acquainted with the program – his two grandfathers took part in it. After its conclusion, one of them was deported back to Mexico after a decade of working in the United States, but the other one obtained a Green Card and stayed on.

“What we didn’t realize,” he says, “is that we created, for more than 20 years, a program that many Mexican families were dependent on. It became almost a rite of passage to send young men to the north, and suddenly that became an illegal activity.” The economic recession that struck the United States in the 1970s affected Mexico as well, he notes, and there were more people looking for jobs.

“For a long time, in the mid-20th century, there was an acknowledgment that there were willing workers in Mexico and willing employers in the United States, and that we should have a system that allows a willing worker to come with a document in hand through the port of entry and work,” Ramirez says. “When we ended the program, in essence we created the illegal immigrant.”

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