Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga is a Mexican American living in Fort Worth, Texas. His grandparents immigrated to the United States, undocumented, in the 1930s. For the past 10 years, he has lectured on immigration reform across the U.S., including at the Fort Worth Rotary Club. And now, he’s leading the Latino-owned U.S. military and government contracting firm PennaGroup in creating and submitting a design proposal for President Donald Trump’s controversial proposed border wall.
“I will build a great wall,” Trump declared in June 2015, while announcing his candidacy for president. “And nobody builds walls better than me, believe me.” At the time, the statement seemed to many like an absurd proclamation that, especially coming from a former reality TV star, would likely never actually come to fruition.
For PennaGroup CEO Evangelista-Ysasaga, Trump’s vision for a border wall felt less like a vague possibility than an inevitable reality after his election. “We’re a Latino-owned firm,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview, specifying that about 80 percent of his workers are Mexican-American, the descendants of immigrants. “We had to do a lot of soul-searching when all of this was first happening.”
In response to a solicitation issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in March, various contracting firms began proposing bids for the 1,000-mile, $21 billion wall project. CBP outlined the requirements for effective wall proposals in a contract issued on its website, with a March 29 deadline. Ideally, it explained, the wall should measure 30 feet in height, though designs as low as 18 feet “may be acceptable.” The wall should be impossible to climb over or tunnel under, able to withstand continuous attack by “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch or other similar hand-held tools.”
And of course, it should be visually appealing ― at least on the northern side, facing the U.S.
According to Evangelista-Ysasaga, word of the various design ideas sparked by the contract travelled fast. “The defense contracting community is very small,” he explained. “And we were hearing some very disturbing design options, some of which would be lethal for those who tried to cross. There was talk of electrified fences, razor wire — that stuff is just horrific. People’s hair and clothing get caught in it. If you’re trying to cross in the middle of the night and get caught in that stuff, it’s a disaster.”
Evangelista-Ysasaga declined to name any of the firms behind such design options. “I really don’t want to name them but among those proposing such designs was a Fortune 500 company that makes airplanes,” he claimed.
As a result, Evangelista-Ysasaga says he decided to throw his hat in the bidding ring. “We wanted to propose a more humane obstruction,” he expressed. “I didn’t want to have to wake up on a Sunday morning and read a story about a family getting killed trying to cross the border.”
PennaGroup’s vision is catered to fit CBP’s basic demands, delivering two relatively straightforward walls with a hint of patriotic flair. The first option is titled a “Solid, Concrete Border Wall,” featuring black wall panels emblazoned with the seal of the United States in recessed concrete and connected with highly polished steel beams.
Then there’s the “Other Border Wall” ― constructed from polished, double wire mesh panels, with a six-foot tall anti-climb cap, also emblazoned with a seal. The cap, PennaGroup’s technical team explained in an email to HuffPost, was designed with neoclassical architecture influences in mind, including the federal and Greek revival styles that inspired 18th- and 19th-century design in Washington, D.C. These architectural details, however, would only adorn the side of the wall that faces America.
“Design costs money,” Evangelista-Ysasaga noted.
Aesthetics are key, especially while designing for a president known to privilege a particular brand of embellished style. Yet it was also crucial, according to PennaGroup’s technical team, that the wall would effectively bar individuals from entry and withstand efforts to destroy it. Although the team emphasized they could not share too many details at this phase in the selection process, PennaGroup’s two potential designs both meet the “threshold requirements” demanded by the government: anti-climb features, anti-tunneling features and anti-tamper features. Both walls measure 30 feet in height.
It was also important to Evangelista-Ysasaga that his design take wildlife, hydrology and ecology into account. While prepping their objectives, PennaGroup consulted with nonprofits and wildlife experts including the U.S. Forest Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to make the wall’s impact on its surrounding environment as minimal as possible. They declined to expand on specifics until after Phase II of the selection process.
One detail they did expand upon, however, was a tactic to mollify the wall’s encroachment on a bird sanctuary by the Rio Grande River. The tech team stated that forest birds are reluctant to cross gaps of unfamiliar habitat. To ease the transition, PennaGroup’s design “preserves the ‘connection’ between the small patches of existing bird habitats by incorporating eco-friendly ‘wall paths.’”
As far as potential wall designs go, PennaGroup’s submissions are relatively straightforward. Others have veered more toward the dystopian, such as DarkPulse Technologies’ idea, which features a wall embedded with sensors that will notify border agents of any unusual motion or meddling with the wall in real time. Crisis Resolution Security Services’ Michael Hari turned somewhat hostile when explaining to The Guardian that the company’s design “is meant to defend what is truly American, and it can start by being beautiful in a way that ordinary American citizens appreciate, rather than by being starkly institutional or by catering to the controversial and perverse tastes of the elites.”
Other organizations, however, have used the callout as an opportunity for creativity and resistance, such as JM Design Studio, a team made entirely of women. JM’s vision imagines walls made of 10-meter organ pipes, with space in between for people to pass through. Another JM design option features three million hammocks hanging across the border from available trees, open to all.
Perhaps the most innovative response to Trump’s dictum comes from a critical collective proposing to demarcate a new bi-national territory on the border of Mexico and the U.S., co-governed by both, called Otra Nation. The region, dubbed “the worlds’ first continental bi-national socio-ecotone,” would be built by a workforce of half-Mexican and half-American laborers, founded on ideals of energy independence and local economic empowerment.
It is highly unlikely these artistic interpretations will be selected by CBP, or even make it to the sought-after Phase II, as they veer from typical wall imagery, whose symbolism has become so enmeshed with Trump’s politics. Also, some of the more radical proposals fail to live up the the structural requirements outlined, instead using the design opportunity to illuminate flaws in the reasoning behind constructing a border wall at all.
In the next round of proposals, down-selected firms will be issued a prototype task order, which requires them to build actual prototypes and mockups. Evangelista-Ysasaga is convinced his vision will make it to Phase II.
According to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Hispanic Americans oppose Trump’s proposition of a border wall, yet 1 in 10 firms bidding for the CBP job are Latino-owned. For some firms, the choice is apolitical ― a job is a job, after all. Evangelista-Ysasaga, however, sees border security as a necessary step in comprehensive immigration reform.
“In my lectures and over the last decade, I have figured out the American people are not going to pass a new set of desperately needed immigration laws without enforcing the laws in the books,” he said. “And that means securing our border.”
As Evangelista-Ysasaga sees it, the conversation regarding immigration in the U.S. is, like so many other polarizing issues, at a standstill. Those on the left are pushing to open pathways to citizenships for the hardworking, undocumented immigrants already living in this country. Those on the right are fixed on keeping people from crossing the border illegally. Evangelista-Ysasaga believes “there is no conversation in between.”
When Evangelista-Ysasaga describes immigrants, he does so in a vocabulary altogether removed from Trump’s rhetoric of Mexicans as “bad hombres,” rapists and criminals. Instead, he discusses their belief in faith, family and hard work. He cites the “across the board” studies that consistently prove immigrants commit crimes with less frequency than American citizens and contribute greatly to the American economy.
According to Evangelista-Ysasaga, these immigrants are the people he is most interested in serving. “Bringing the undocumented immigrants in this country out of the shadows is the least we can do,” he said. A border wall, he asserts, does not run contrary to this goal, but will open up the necessary channels to realize it.
The problem, he explained, is that when the conversation surrounding border security is co-opted by the extreme right, it becomes wrapped up in language that’s filled with xenophobia and hate. “The left has allowed extremists to hijack the security narrative and turn it into something that it is not,” he said. “I want the U.S. to be free of threats. I want to ensure that threats to the U.S. don’t make it across the border. There is nothing inherently xenophobic about this.”
“Now people say, you’re building a wall, you must be a racist, but that’s not true,” he added, comparing the obstruction to locking your door at night even though you don’t hate your neighbors. “Every sovereign nation has a right to say who stays and who goes.”
Michelle Mittelstadt of The Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., offered her response to Evangelista-Ysasaga’s position in an email to The Huffington Post. “Countries have a sovereign right to protect their borders and to determine who can and cannot enter,” she wrote. “And fencing makes sense in certain high-crossing areas, and has proven itself to be effective when used in key corridors and in combination with other strategies, as has been the case since the mid-1990s.
“But spending $21 billion or more fencing the entirety of the border ― by comparison, the U.S. spent $19 billion last year on all federal immigration enforcement ― would not represent an effective investment of resources and would be a case of fighting the last war.”
Lawyer Amelia Miazad, a founding member of the nonprofit organization Wall of Us, agreed. “All nations have different border policies,” she told HuffPost, “almost no nations have walls. The wall is a symbolic rhetorical tool to instill hate and division. There is no rational or responsible correlation between a giant wall and border security. It starts from an assumption that we have people pouring over the borders, which is not accurate.”
To this point, Mittelstadt noted that there were 409,000 apprehensions at the border in 2016, around one fourth of what they were in 2000, at 1.64 million. Furthermore she added that 40 to 50 percent of all unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers, who would not be affected in any way by a wall. In fact, The Migration Policy Institute estimates that only 18 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for under five years, with 58 percent calling America home for a decade or more.
“The whole migration picture from Mexico has been realigned, and huge inflows of illegal Mexican crossers are a thing of the past,” Mittelstadt summarized.
Miazad also contested Evangelista-Ysasaga’s assertion that a border wall, at this point, is inevitable. “What the post-election enthusiasm and patriotism by Americans has shown is the only wall the that is going to get built is a wall of resistance,” she said. “The image of a wall is very divisive and it has really unified Americans to voice their desires to have unity, not division.”
Both Democrats and Republicans, Miazad explained, have voiced reasonable opposition to the wall. Liberals are skeptical that a border wall will increase border security, opting to build social programs supporting local communities at a fraction of the cost. Likewise many conservatives realize the fiscal irresponsibility of the wall’s massive budget, anticipating that despite Trump’s promise that Mexico will pay for the wall, Americans will end up doing so themselves.
“Between the legal opposition, the grassroots opposition and the congressional opposition, there will not be any wall,” Miazad said.
Underlying Evangelista-Ysasaga’s claims is the reality that Trump’s border wall is a lucrative business opportunity. When asked about the $21 billion project’s hefty paycheck, he replied, “We’re a for-profit enterprise, but if you take a look at my firm’s website, we have our pick of federal projects. We could have made enough money on other projects without taking on all of this heat.”
Moreover, Evangelista-Ysasaga condemned the Latino-owned contractors who refused to submit project ideas. “I don’t understand why you would allow someone who doesn’t care about immigrants to dictate the narrative of immigration,” he said.
In response to skepticism about his intentions, Evangelista-Ysasaga recommended a 2006 clip showing him reiterating the importance of immigration reform, which he recently shared on Twitter in light of the controversy his interest in the wall ignited:
Whether right or wrong, Evangelista-Ysasaga seems genuinely convinced the erection of a border wall will indeed yield progress toward immigration reform. Placing his faith in the Trump administration, he believes that walls will lead to effective border security, which will open up the conversation for the improvements he truly cares about. If the Trump administration does not use the wall as a springboard for the kind of change Evangelista-Ysasaga hopes for and predicts, he intends to make sure they will be held accountable.
“I have faith in the American people and their will,” he said. “Nationally, this has got everyone’s attention. I believe the American people will hold the administration’s feet to the fire. Solving one side of the problem is not good enough. And I’ll continue to pound on doors until it happens. Building this wall is going to give me even more of a platform to demand comprehensive immigration reform.”
Whether or not this pragmatic optimism will yield the desired result remains to be seen. In the meantime, PennaGroup’s vision embodies an unusual strategy in today’s polarizing political climate: one built on compromise, conversation and, not quite as unconventionally, capital.