Donald Trump’s border wall fixation tells a tale about US innovation

The truth about migration from Mexico does not matter for those pitching for the project

 Eight border wall prototypes on display in California, US. File photograph: Josh Haner/The New York Times

Eight border wall prototypes on display in California, US. File photograph: Josh Haner/The New York Times

 

Competition is heating up in the race for the “mother of all” construction projects, as the shortlist of construction firms competing for the US government contract to build a border wall grows shorter. In tandem, the prospect of president Donald Trump delivering on one of his key election promises grows more likely. In the age of tech innovation, as China expands into space, bricks and mortar – or metal bars – is what is on the US president’s mind.

In April 2015, Trump, then a regular civilian, first suggested building a border wall between Mexico and the US. It may have been several months before he had even formally announced he was planning to run for the White House, but his remarks still generated enough reaction for construction firms across the US to start throwing their hard hats into the ring in the hope they might capitalise on this colossal construction project expected to solve America’s illegal immigration problem.

Wait, did I just refer to immigration from Mexico into the US as a “problem”? I do apologise because when you look at the statistics . . .

According to the Pew Research Centre, since 2012 the net flow of migration from Mexico, both legal and not, has been decreasing. Between 2009 and 2014, Pew estimates about 1 million Mexicans left the US, while 870,000 arrived. The number of Mexicans living in the US illegally has dropped by more than 1 million since 2007.

I digress. And besides, none of this matters. Notwithstanding the president’s non-presidential statements when first proposing to build a wall 2,000 miles long (it’s gotten shorter since then) between Mexico and the US, or that the statistics on immigration don’t necessarily align with official government policy, more than 200 construction companies have made themselves known to US authorities as interested in applying for the job.

It’s every foreman’s dream. Building a fortified wall spanning what’s now estimated to be closer to 1,000 miles in length is the kind of job that’ll only come around once in a lifetime. Mind you, there’s a bit of work involved, logistically speaking. Securing the materials, not to mention manpower (which presumably can’t be sourced from the pool of illegal Mexican day labourers already relied upon by almost every major construction company in the US) are big challenges alone. The successful applicant must also simultaneously navigate both state and federal regulations in order to avoid adding further challenges to building a structure going all the way from the Pacific Ocean in California to western Texas. Any company willing to guarantee completion on time and on budget will need both experience and “cojones”. Where others build skyscrapers, vertical exemplars of their engineering prowess and financial clout, the current administration is all about the horizontal, fixated on fencing.

Possible metaphor

More than three years has passed since the border wall was proposed, an idea which has been dismissed by some as pure quackery, while other more sympathetic – but equally doubtful – commentators have preferred to interpret Trump’s “wall” as a metaphor. Perhaps in reference to stricter law enforcement or the adoption of new technologies at the border, or meaning a big fence rather than an actual “wall”. No, no, the commander-in-chief wants the actual wall, and last week formally requested $18 billion (€15.8 billion) from Congress so that he may deliver upon one of his central election campaign promises. A promise that inches ever closer to reality.

The list of companies still in the running may have shortened significantly – various media reports suggest between six and eight firms are still in the race – but that list comprises names of capable firms with prior experience working alongside federal authorities on major infrastructural projects, all of which enjoy the economies of scale needed to even be considered.

Last year, six contractors were invited to build and exhibit border wall prototypes to federal border control authorities at an event in San Diego, clearly an indication that president Trump meant business.

This is big business and is perhaps the current administration’s alternative to engaging in unnecessary military conflicts abroad to boost economic activity back home.

The haggling is already well under way. One of the companies invited to San Diego to exhibit their wall prototype, Fisher Sand and Gravel from North Dakota, announced it could build the wall for $6 billion less than what the president is currently asking for from Congress.

As the name suggests, the Fisher family have been in the sand and gravel business for more than six decades and have become one of the largest producers in the country. Having also worked on several federal roadbuilding projects, the company has good reason to feel confident about its chances of winning the contract. In an interview, company president Tommy Fisher stated his company could do the job in six years for a paltry $12.2 billion. Fisher also said they would be able to source all the required project materials from American manufacturers, and had the manpower too.

Whether or not illegal immigrants from anywhere south of the US-Mexican border are simply the latest “enemy” to be created for political reasons isn’t important. Nor does it matter if a wall turns out to be a genuine deterrent for illegal immigrants. Its construction will generate lots and lots of money for big business in the US. And isn’t that all that really matters in the end?

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