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 are constructed 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. Along 42 miles, near four urban areas, there is a secondary barrier alongside the primary pedestrian barrier, further removed from the legal border, 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, built in 1962. However, over 90 percent of the existing barrier was 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 project.
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. Fear of encountering a formidable wall or a Border Patrol agent is low on migrants’ lists of deterrents. 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.
The construction of walls on the U.S.-Mexico border has spiked just after the estimated numbers of unauthorized crossings went down. The last few years show a record low of attempted crossings. At the same time, the people trying to cross are pushed to cross in more dangerous areas, further east and further away from urban areas, into 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.
Construction along the border requires a bypass of environmental and cultural protection laws, 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, denying their 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 since 2007, following the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The act mandated the construction of the existing 700-mile border fence, with about 300 miles of it a low vehicle barrier, including 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.
Estimate 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. In December-January 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) conducted extensive testing of the prototypes. In July 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 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, is 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, a juvenile detention center in Jackson, Mississippi, a 356-bed detention center in Cameron County, and a 1,500-bed federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama.
- Caddell Construction, a privately-owned company, has previously 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 (GOA) 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 GOA highlighted several costly replacement projects. In Tucson and Yuma, Arizona there was 14.1 miles of border fence replaced, costing almost $70 million, or $5 million per mile. In El Paso, Texas, 1.4 miles were replaced for $13 million. And in Naco, Arizona, there were 7.5 miles replaced at $45 million. Granite Construction was awarded an $11.6 million contract to update the border fence in Nogales, Arizona.
In March 2018, the 2018 spending bill allocated $1.6 billion for border security. Of it, $641 million will go toward fencing while $960 million will be allocated to border surveillance technology and repairing existing infrastructure. A bipartisan agreement guaranteed that none of the money will be given to a solid concrete wall (“The Trump Wall”). However, it includes replacing large patches of low vehicle barriers and scrap metal walls with a new bollard-style wall, 18-30 feet high. It also includes new construction: 25 miles of primary levee fencing in the Rio Grande Valley and eight miles of bollard wall in Starr County, Texas.
The replacement of low barriers with the tall wall has started almost immediately:
In February 2018, in Calexico, California, an $18 million project was awarded to SWF Constructors to replace 2.25 miles of bollard-style wall with a 30-foot tall wall.
In Santa Teresa Port of Entry, New Mexico, Barnard Construction was awarded a $73.3 million contract in April 2018 to replace twenty miles of a low vehicular barrier with a tall bollard-style 18-30ft wall. Four more miles of the same wall are to be built in El Paso, and a later project includes 35 new gates in the existing wall.
In San Diego, California, the replacement project begins approximately one-half mile from the Pacific Ocean coastline and extends 14 miles eastward to the base of Otay Mountain in East County San Diego. The existing 8-10 foot high scrap metal wall is replaced with an 18-to-30 foot bollard-style wall topped off with an anti-climbing plate. This $147 million contract was awarded to SLSCO, a Texas-based construction company.
In 2019, CBP has 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.