This section focuses on the main companies involved in the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border through the construction and maintenance of barriers, fences, checkpoints, and walls.
The U.S.-Mexico border extends 1,954 miles, running along the southern borders of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Physical barriers appear along 653 miles of this border, separated into several sections due to natural barriers such as rivers and mountains. About 300 miles of this barrier is a vehicle fence, a low barrier designed to stop only vehicles and not pedestrians. The secondary barrier is further removed from the legal border and runs along the primary pedestrian barrier for 42 miles near four urban areas, allowing for more fortifications and for surveillance and patrols between the two fences. In some parts, a tertiary fence has been constructed as well.
These different border barriers have been built over several decades, with the first patch in San Diego constructed in 1962. However, over 90 percent of the existing barrier has been built since 2006. We will refer to them here as “walls,” “fences,” or “barriers'' interchangeably. Full maps and detailed statistics can be found in KPBS and inewsource’s 2017 America’s Wall report.
According to surveys conducted by the University of California San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, the main drivers behind border crossings are incentives to pursue better jobs, reunite with relatives, or escape hunger or violence. Given these stark motivations, undocumented immigrants do not report fears of encountering a formidable wall or Border Patrol agents as deterrents to unauthorized border crossings. In recent years, there have been historically low levels of unauthorized immigration from Mexico, due to the country’s improving wages and declining birth rate, as well as the 2007-2009 U.S. economic recession.
Despite the decrease in unauthorized crossings, the rate of construction of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border spiked during the Trump administration (2017-2021). While these new walls have not prevented unauthorized crossings, they have pushed migrants further east, further away from urban areas, and towards more dangerous areas including the desert and the Rio Grande Valley. This results in more deaths from exposure to extreme temperatures in areas on both sides of the border, where people cannot call for rescue, with some of those lost never accounted for.
The federal government has bypassed environmental and cultural protection laws to move ahead with border wall construction, as it disrupts the ecosystem and animal migration routes, endangering animals and plant life, and divides the lands of indigenous people.
The border has become a site of extreme violence and militarization, as migrants are tracked and apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the primary federal agency responsible for securing the border. Reports include sexual and physical assaults of migrants, denial of basic rights to medical care and water, and a long history of separating families, peaking with the 2018 Trump administration zero tolerance policies.
The main companies involved in this sector are:
Granite Construction, of Watsonville, CA (NYSE: GVA)
Sterling Construction, Inc., of Houston, TX (NASDAQ: STRL)
ELTA North America, a subsidiary of IAI Israel Aerospace Industries of Ben Gurion Airport, Israel (state owned)
Barnard Construction, of Bozeman, MT (private)
Caddell Construction, of Montgomery, AL (private)
Fisher Industries, of Tempe, AZ (private)
KWR Construction, of Sierra Vista, AZ (private)
SWF Contractors, of Omaha, NE (private)
W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company, of Philadelphia, PA (private)
SLSCO Ltd. of Galveston, Texas (private)
Southwest Valley Constructors Co. of Albuquerque, NM (private)
Phases in the Construction of the Border Wall
The bulk of the barrier along the border was built following the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The act mandated the construction of a 700-mile border fence, including 300 miles of a low vehicle barrier, lighting, observation towers, and checkpoints. With a cost of over $4 billion, the design and construction were supervised by Michael Baker International, a privately-owned company. Several companies were contracted to build parts of the wall, including Tetra Tech and Granite Construction. Tetra Tech built the border fence near El Paso, Texas and Santa Teresa, New Mexico for approximately $30 million. Granite Construction had several contracts to build the border fence around Yuma, Arizona; Imperial, California; El Paso, Texas; and other locations, totaling approximately $247 million.
The 2017 Proposed Border Wall (The “Trump Wall”)
In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to build a contiguous wall along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, provide additional resources to Border Patrol agents, drastically increase detention along and beyond the border, expand the use of expedited removal to the entire nation while limiting the use of discretion in deciding whom to deport, and authorize more state and local officials to enforce federal immigration laws.
Estimated costs of this proposed wall have ranged from $15 billion to $40 billion. In September 2017, six companies chosen for the final stage of the vetting process constructed eight prototypes in San Diego, California. From December 2017 to January 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) conducted extensive testing of the prototypes. In July 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report exposing extensive construction challenges with the prototypes.
The six companies contracted to design and build prototypes were Caddell Construction, ELTA North America, Fisher Industries, KWR Construction, Texas Sterling Construction, and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company.
Texas Sterling Construction, a subsidiary of Sterling Construction, was the only publicly-traded company awarded a prototype. According to a report released by a collection of advocacy groups, including Partnership for Working Families and the Center for Popular Democracy, Sterling’s stocks rose by 65 percent after the announcement was made that they were awarded a prototype contract.
Two of these companies have experience in the construction of prisons and detention centers:
- W.G. Yates & Sons Construction, a privately-owned company, has built a 380-bed patrol station in Eagle Pass, Texas; county jails in Bandera County and Lubbock County in Texas; a juvenile detention center in Jackson, Mississippi; a 356-bed detention center in Cameron County, Texas; and a 1,500-bed federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama.
- Caddell Construction, a privately-owned company, built the Jackson County Adult Detention Center and Escambia County Correctional Facility.
ELTA North America is a subsidiary of IAI Israel Aerospace Industries, one of Israel’s largest weapon manufacturers, owned by the Israeli government. The company produces a myriad of weapon systems, including robotic warfare systems, armed aerial and land drones for border control, surveillance and cyber warfare equipment.
Maintaining and expanding the Border Fence
The border barriers require almost constant maintenance and repair. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported almost 10,000 breaches in pedestrian fencing from 2010 to 2015 with each breach costing an average of $800 to repair. In addition, the GAO highlighted several costly replacement projects in 2017. For example, in Tucson and Yuma, Arizona there were 14.1 miles of border fence replaced, costing almost $70 million, or $5 million per mile.
In 2019, CBP planned the construction of 85 more miles of new fencing in the Rio Grande Valley area. In August 2019, Southwest Valley Constructors Co. was awarded a contract for $80 million to build 11 miles of a new levee wall system in the area. The same company was awarded a $646 million for replacing the fence near Tucson, AZ and $141.75 million for building new vehicle and pedestrian barriers in CA and AZ.
Construction Paused Under Biden Administration
In June 2021, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials released a document confirming that most existing border wall construction had stopped, and that the agency would reevaluate how to spend the remaining funds allocated for those projects. However, the proposed plan made an exception for “activities related to ensuring project sites are safe and secure in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contracts.” In Texas, county officials complained that abandoned border construction projects left vulnerabilities in levee systems that protect communities from hurricanes.