Donald Trump is garnering considerable political mileage from his claim that, were he elected president, he would build a wall along the border with Mexico with “one very big, very beautiful door” for those the U.S. wants to allow in. This is not a novel idea. Rumblings about a border wall began in the Clinton administration and were concretized by George W. Bush in 2006 when he signed of the Secure Fence Act, which appropriated $1.2 billion to build 700 miles of double fencing. It also called for more checkpoints, vehicle barriers and advanced technology such as cameras, drones and satellites. By 2009, 670 miles of pedestrian fence had been erected at a cost of $2.4 billion. But efforts to revive the bill languished and, despite the patchwork of steel and concrete fences that now stands, approximately 500,000 people annually continue to enter the U.S. illegally. In 2014, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 5,990,369 undocumented Mexicans lived in this country. This is in spite of the presence of the U.S. Border Patrol, an agency established after World War I and currently “the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government save the military itself,” according to Harvard Magazine. Its 2016 budget of $13.56 billion includes about $1.4 billion to pay the over 21,370 agents that prowl the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Regardless of which poll one consults, there does appear to be some support for the idea of a border barrier. A recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found that 51% of all likely voters favored a wall, while 37% did not (12% were undecided). Among millennials, a Harvard University Institute of Politics survey found 43% in favor and 53% opposed. No matter what side of the political fence we find ourselves on, and whether or not Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, the concept of a wall at our southern border is not likely to go away, in fact it already exists, as do over 20,000 border patrol agents.
Donald Trump ha logrado un considerable salto político a partir de su declaración de que, si fuera elegido presidente, construiría un muro a lo largo de la frontera con México con “una puerta muy grande y hermosa” para aquellos a los que Estados Unidos desee permitir la entrada. Esta no es una idea novedosa. Los rumores acerca de un muro fronterizo se iniciaron durante la administración de Clinton y fueron concretados por George W. Bush en 2006, cuando aprobó la Ley del Cerco Seguro, la cual asignó $1,200 millones para la construcción de 700 millas de doble vallado. Esta ley también estableció más puestos de control, barreras para vehículos y tecnología avanzada, como cámaras, drones y satélites. Para 2009, se habían construido 670 millas de vallas peatonales a un costo de $2,400 millones. Pero los esfuerzos para reactivar el proyecto de ley se marchitaron y, a pesar del actual mosaico de acero y vallas de concreto, cada año aproximadamente 500,000 personas siguen entrando ilegalmente en los Estados Unidos. En 2014, el Instituto de Políticas Migratorias estimó que 5,990,369 de mexicanos indocumentados residían en Estados Unidos. Esto a pesar de la presencia de la Patrulla Fronteriza de los Estados Unidos, una agencia establecida después de la Primera Guerra Mundial y actualmente “la rama armada más grande del gobierno de Estados Unidos, salvo los militares”, según la Revista Harvard. Su presupuesto de $13,560 millones para 2016 incluye aproximadamente $1,400 millones para pagar a los más de 21,370 agentes que rondan las fronteras de México y Canadá.
Independientemente de la encuesta que se consulte, sí parece existir algún apoyo a la idea de una barrera fronteriza. Una reciente encuesta telefónica realizada por Rasmussen Reports, determinó que el 51% de los posibles votantes está favor de la construcción de un muro, mientras que el 37% no está a favor (el 12% se mostró indeciso). Una encuesta realizada por el Instituto de Políticas de la Universidad de Harvard determinó que, entre la generación del milenio, el 43% está a favor y el 53%, en contra. Sin importar de qué lado de la valla política nos encontremos, y de si Trump se convierte en el presidente número 45 de Estados Unidos o no, no es probable que desaparezca el concepto de un muro en nuestra frontera sur. De hecho, ya existe, al igual que los más de 20,000 agentes de la patrulla fronteriza.
By any estimate, the current fencing along America’s southern border is ineffective at best, a dismal failure at worst. Along its span, it is made variously of sheets of corrugated metal, chain-link and other fencing, and concrete. For the most part, this patchwork is exceedingly ugly, covered in graffiti or otherwise vandalized.
What the magazine Slate has called “The Great Wall of Trump” may or may not be a better answer. But if, as polls indicate, it is an idea that is gaining some traction among a significant amount of Americans, we believe it should be considered as a serious architectural question. A border barrier of any sort presents formidable challenges for the architect. First, Slate pointed out that the wall would traverse valley, mountain, river, Indian reservation, private land, state property, even the library of a state university. The permitting alone might be insurmountable, let alone the land acquisition, neither of which are provided for in Trump’s proposal.
A CNN news story pointed out that the wall will have to extend at least five feet underground to prevent tunneling and at least 20 feet above ground to make scaling it difficult (Trump plans a height of 30 or 40 feet). After consulting with civil engineers, architects and academics, the CNN report weighed the pros and cons of using readily available cinderblocks and poured concrete. They determined that stacking and mortaring the former would be cost prohibitive and so labor-intensive as to be next to impossible. Poured concrete was more feasible, but it also ran into problems. If the concrete is poured in hot conditions (a desert, say), the concrete will likely not dry properly, leaving the wall susceptible to crumbling. If poured concrete were used, however, a wall of this size would require 339 million cubic feet of the material, plus five billion pounds of reinforced steel.
Trump initially claimed his concrete wall could be built for approximately $8 billion. But as soon as media began consulting with engineers and coming up with numbers of their own, he revised the figure upward: to $10-$12 billion. Many sources say this still grossly underestimates the actual cost. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated that one mile of fencing was between $2.8 million and $3.9 million. That means that at 2009 prices, completing the existing barriers (that is, erecting another 1,370 miles of fence) would require between a little over $3.75 billion and about $5.23 billion in material costs. But adjusted for inflation and taking into account transporting materials to remote locations (the middle of the desert or the mountains), the approximately 40,000 workers needed for the job, land acquisition costs, technology to monitor the fence and other expenses, those numbers quickly escalate. CNBC, consulting with the deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, came up with a range of $15 billion to $25 billion. The Washington Post figure was about $42 billion for just 1,000 miles of 25-foot concrete wall.
Lastly, there is the issue of maintenance. The Corps of Engineers estimated that the cost of a fence’s 25-year life cycle would range between $16.4 million to $70 million per mile (presumably the spread is wide due to the unpredictable nature of the degree of vandalism perpetrated by illegal crossers, severe weather conditions at different points along the fence and other factors). And Politico estimated that maintenance of a concrete wall would run about $750 million annually.
Are these challenges insurmountable? Is the idea patently ridiculous on a purely practical and moral basis? Are there better solutions to the perceived “problem” of illegal immigration, which, as many have pointed out, is a situation that has been going on for decades, if not centuries and is tacitly exploited by both countries in this debate for its mutual economic benefits? If not a fence or wall, then what? Can the idea of a wall be combined with architectural activism?
This is the competition’s challenge: To bring bold humanitarian solutions, creativity and innovation to bear on alternative ideas of a border wall, and in so doing, expand the boundaries and re-conceptualize the current debate beyond sound bytes, statistics, unrealistic monetary figures and polemics.