Trump's Wall Is Bad Business for Any Engineering Firm Capable of Building It

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Trump's Wall Is Bad Business for Any Engineering Firm Capable of Building It

In 2015, French company Veolia ended their investment in Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement claimed victory after a seven-year campaign against the infrastructure company which drew the ire of the BDS after it helped build a rail line to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. The campaign claims its boycott efforts have cost the company $20 billion in lost contracts.

For any firm participating in politically-charged infrastructure projects—like, say, building a 2,000-mile wall along the border between the United States and Mexico—it’s a harsh lesson in the power of consumer voices that may make the bottom line of any deal less lucrative than initially imagined.

Despite President Trump’s signature, which put into motion the initial stages of a wall stretching sea-to-sea along the southern border, the actual building process may be much more complicated than lining up a few steel bars and pouring mountains of concrete. The cost is said to be astronomical, the logistics unfeasible and any corporation sophisticated enough to take on such a massive project might not want the press—or to be on the wrong side of history.

Last Spring, CityLab explored an often-overlooked challenge of Trump’s border wall: who would agree to build the damn thing. Engineers, architects, and planners are bound by codes of ethics that may prevent their participation. Even if those codes aren’t enough of a barrier, the bad optics alone might be sufficient to stop any respected company from becoming involved, according to Raphael Sperry, President of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility.

“Anybody retrospectively who looked at the Berlin Wall would say, ‘That was a bad project.’ If you were the engineer who designed part of it, would you ever be proud of that project? Only if you were a crazy ideologue of the Soviet system. Which was a horrible system.”

Sperry made his comments to CityLab in March of 2016, but following Trump’s election, his organization issued several scathing statements and launched a petition encouraging the American Institute of Architects to adopt an ethics rule to prohibit the design of spaces that violate human rights.

Although Cornelius DuBois, of the AIA ethics committee, told CityLab last year that a border wall would be an engineering project more than one driven by architects, he admitted the existing code of ethics would require professionals to give thought to the implications of any project they may take on.

Both the American Institute of Certified Planners and the American Society of Civil Engineers have codes of ethics that promote the wellbeing of communities and the environment. But despite this language, it remains a matter of opinion as to whether an engineering firm would consider the construction of a border wall a violation of its duty of civic responsibility.

As anyone who has visited the southern region knows, there is already some border fencing in place. About 653 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border is protected by fencing, and the Rio Grande covers most of the eastern region. About two-thirds of the existing wall has been erected since the Secure Fences Act was signed in 2006. It is under that law that Trump issued his executive order.

The border wall, if it goes ahead, will be subject to the U.S.’s 1970 treaty with Mexico, which says that no structure can disrupt the flow of rivers. That has particular implications for the border along Texas and part of Arizona.

Apparently, whomever took on the contract to build the existing wall structures had no ethical qualms. But what Trump proposes may be bigger and less transparent than the barriers that now exist. Since Trump specified during the campaign that he envisioned a 30- to 65-foot high concrete wall, it’s hard to imagine that after its construction relatives will catch up by chatting through the fence like they do now. Trump’s focus was to be on the areas where natural barriers didn’t already exist, about half of the length of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The executive order signed by Trump describes the wall this way: “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier.” The order makes reference not only to its construction but staffing:

“It is the policy of the executive branch to secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.”

Despite those stated intentions, there is evidence the focus on Mexico may be misplaced. The number of illegal border crossings from Mexico has continued to decrease. In 2014 and 2016, less than half of all illegal border crossings were committed by citizens of Mexico.

Even if any large engineering firm—who would probably contract out portions of the wall construction to other entities—was prepared to handle the bad publicity and ethical ambiguities, it might worry about getting paid. Trump has repeatedly said Mexico will incur the multi-billion dollar cost, which President Pena Nieto vehemently denied, canceling a scheduled visit to the U.S. this week.

Trump will have to ask Congress for the money to pay for the wall up front, which even Republicans may find hard to swallow, especially if, despite Trump’s claim, Mexico doesn’t seem willing to reimburse the U.S. for construction. The back-and-forth is eerily reminiscent of stories that emerged during the presidential campaign of small business contractors who never received full payment after working on Trump projects.

Historians can debate whether lessons from the Berlin Wall have any relevance to Trump’s proposed border wall. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, more than a decade after the split of Germany into the communist-controlled East and democratic West. Because of a geographical glitch, citizens of the East could pass through to the West from Berlin.

As the East hemorrhaged citizens, it put up the wall almost overnight to prevent its population from leaving, dividing families and communities in the process. After the barrier had gone up, virtually no one from the East was allowed to pass through to the West. The wall fell on November 9, 1989, leading to the eventual reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Trump’s wall isn’t designed to keep people from leaving, but to prevent people from coming in. The parallels are nonetheless striking, giving credibility to Sperry’s comment that no builder should want to be involved in a project like the Berlin Wall. It is just one of many, perhaps insurmountable, challenges for one of Trump’s campaign promises that he seems intent to keep.