Posted on March 30, 2017

The Beauty Pageant to Build Trump’s Border Wall Is Beginning

Julia Carrie Wong, The Guardian, March 29, 2017

Border Wall with Mexico

Part of today’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.(Credit Image: © Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters via ZUMA Press)

Next Wednesday marks the deadline for the hundreds of companies interested in building Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise – a “great, great wall” on the US-Mexico border – to submit concept papers detailing their proposals.

It is the first step in a process that promises to combine three of Trump’s most successful ventures: beauty pageants, reality TV competitions and xenophobia. (With an added dash of chaos: just hours before the original deadline of 29 March, bidders were given a one-week extension to 4 April.)

After an initial elimination round, the remaining contestants will submit more detailed technical proposals. Another round of cuts will ensue, and then a group of finalists will convene in San Diego, California, to construct both a 30ft-long prototype of their design and a 10ft by 10ft “mock-up” that will be used by the government to “test and evaluate the anti-destruct characteristics” of the design.

Think of it as a swimsuit competition followed by a high-stakes Apprentice challenge. Those who can withstand the battering ram for at least 90 minutes while also being “aesthetically pleasing” (on the US-facing side) have a shot at winning a lucrative piece of one of the US government’s largest infrastructure projects in decades.

The government’s initial pre-solicitation notice for the border wall asked for 30ft-tall “concrete wall structures”, but when the request for proposals was published on 17 March, the scope was expanded to allow for “other” proposals. So while some companies will move ahead with reinforced concrete, others can put forward ideas for alternative materials.

All proposals must meet some baseline standards, including being “physically imposing in height” with “anti-climb” features and “aesthetically pleasing” color on the north side. Non-concrete walls are also required to have a “see-through component” to increase “situational awareness”.

Matt Kaye of Integrated Security Corporation plans to submit a proposal with a group of other companies that calls for two chain-link fences with a “no man’s land in between” and his company’s intrusion detection systems in place. Kaye described the concept as a “typical correctional type fence” (his company has contracted for federal, state and local prisons) and said it would be “far less expensive and far less intrusive” than a concrete wall.

Liz Derr, the founder and CEO of artificial intelligence company Simularity, is proposing an “invisible or virtual wall” that uses AI software to analyze satellite and surveillance imagery to identify unusual activities.

Derr, who said that her company is “pro-immigration” and “pro-diversity”, argued that a hi-tech solution to border security could provide a 90% saving to the government, though she assumed her concept would not be chosen since it does not include any physical barrier.

Steve Speakes, the president and CEO of Kalmar Rough Terrain Center, has an alternative idea for that physical barrier: shipping containers. Kalmar produces machines that can move shipping containers in difficult terrain, so Speakes is hoping that any winning contractor will be interested in his equipment. But he also strongly approved of the idea of using the containers themselves as the building blocks for the wall – as was proposed by a Florida architecture firm earlier this year. The “sustainable” design drew immediate backlash (one architecture site called it “the Bushwick of xenophobic nationalism”), but Speakes defended the concept.

“That is a very reasonable way to build a wall,” he said, noting that there is a surplus of containers available now due to a slowdown in global commerce.

Notably absent from the list of interested contractors are any of the large, multinational corporations that would probably have the capacity to carry out the 1,000-mile, $21bn project.

Such companies may be put off by toxic politics surrounding the project (62% of Americans oppose building the wall, according to a February poll by the Pew Research Center), and the difficult path to actually funding it. The lack of name-brand bidders and challenge of getting the wall through Congress have led some to speculate that the San Diego prototype pageant will be as far as the project ever gets.

“The wall was a campaign promise,” said Phil Ting, a state assembly member from California. “The administration is probably trying to do the absolute minimum to gain the maximum press. I can see why they’d want to cause the biggest possible splash, and then go quietly away.”

Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, is one of several state and local legislators who are hoping to scare off potential bidders for the project with threats of blacklists and divestment.

“We don’t want a single California cent going toward building this wall,” Ting said of the Resist the Wall Act, which would require the state’s two giant pension funds to divest from any companies that take part in building the wall. Ting compared the measure to the divestment campaigns against Apartheid South Africa.

Lawmakers in other states, including New YorkIllinois and Arizona, have proposed barring any involved companies from receiving state contracts. The city of Berkeley, California, has already passed a boycott measure, and other municipalities are considering following suit.

Companies on the other side of the border are facing pressure as well. The Mexican government warned of reputational damage to firms that might be interest in providing materials for the wall, such as Cemex, a Mexican cement producer. The Catholic archdiocese of Mexico wrote in an op-ed that any participating company would be “immoral” and that its shareholders and owners “should be considered traitors to the homeland”.

Still, some businessmen are more interested in the morality of employing their workers than the morality of keeping out migrants. Speake, who said he’s had to lay off employees over the past two years, said the opportunity to work on the wall was “heaven sent”.

Ron Schoenheit, the president of Cascade Coil, an Oregon-based company that makes woven wire products, said that he would not be deterred by backlash.

“If we did get some work on this project and people found out about it, as liberal as the city of Portland is, they would probably come burn our factory down,” he said. But that wouldn’t stop him, he said.

“If it was a big contract, I would just move the company.”