Ten percent of the companies interested in bidding for the first stage of the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico are Hispanic-owned businesses, as construction firms wrestle with the morality of profiting from the controversial infrastructure project.
More than 600 businesses have formally registered interest since 24 February, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a presolicitation notice for contractors to perform the “design and build of several prototype wall structures” for the border.
A Guardian review of the companies reveals that 62 are “Hispanic American Owned” businesses.
“I think the wall is a waste of time and money,” said Patrick Balcazar, the owner of San Diego Project Management, PSC, a design-build construction firm in Puerto Rico that is listed as one of the Hispanic companies involved.
“For environmental reasons, it’s dumb. From an economic point of view, it’s dumb.” But, he added, “I defend your right to be stupid. If you want to put up a wall, I’m going to put up the best wall I can and I’m going to pay my people.”
The presolicitation notice, which provides few details beyond asking for 30ft tall “concrete wall structures”, is the first step toward fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise of building a “great, great wall on our southern border” to keep out Mexican immigrants, whom he has characterized as criminals and “rapists”.
During his first week in office, the president signed an executive order to move ahead with “existing funds and resources” to start construction, which he once promised would be paid for by the Mexican government. Only about $20m in funds currently exist, according to documents reviewed by Reuters. That amount would cover about one to two miles of the 1,000-mile, $21bn project.
The wall has been consistently opposed by Mexico, Mexican Americans, and the majority of the American population.
That irony is not lost on Balcazar and some of the other Hispanic businesses bidding for the construction project. “The story isn’t, ‘Hey there’s a Latino guy building a wall to keep other Latino people out,” said Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga, CEO of the Penna Group in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s that we need comprehensive immigration reform.”
Opponents of the wall contend that it is an ineffective way to police the border and object to the xenophobic and anti-Mexican tenor of Trump’s campaign. A February 2017 poll by Pew Research Center found that 62% of Americans opposed the project, with especially high opposition (83%) from Hispanics.
But where some see a racist and ineffective boondoggle, others see dollar signs. “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive,” said Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction, Inc. “We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work.”
De la Fuente’s Construction’s website makes note of Diaz’s cross-border experience, saying that he was born in San Diego but went to elementary and high school in Mexico before returning to the US for college, and that he has managed construction projects in both countries.
But Diaz was not interested in discussing the political or personal implications of constructing a giant symbol of division between the two countries. “I’m nobody to judge that,” he said.
Frank Meza, the general manager of Tabeza Holdings, which specializes in federal construction contracts, said that although he is an immigrant himself, he has no concerns about bidding for the wall.
“As a former veteran, I think it’s important to support our president, as long as it’s within the guidelines of the law,” he said. Meza said that he supports a “strong defense of our country”, though he was not persuaded that “it’s going to be as useful as many people think it’s going to be”.
The temptation of getting a piece of a $21bn project could end up dividing more than just the US and Mexico, but also Latino communities on the same side of the wall. The wall is vehemently opposed by most Latino and immigrant rights organizations. The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposed the wall during the campaign, arguing that it would disrupt important trade relations between the two countries unnecessarily.
“These Hispanic owners are established. They’re looking out for their interests,” said Margarito Blancos, an immigrant rights activist in Arizona. Getting involved in building the wall, he said, “deepens the divide between those that are already here and those that are looking for a better life”.
For Evangelista-Ysasaga, whose workers are about 80% Mexican American, deciding to bid for the wall required some “soul searching”.
“We wanted to make sure that a company that had compassion for immigrants was one of the companies putting in one of the designs,” he said, adding that he had heard other contractors discuss “nefarious, inhumane designs” for the wall, such as lethal electricity or landmines.
The CEO, who said that he was one of the earliest participants in Occupy Wall Street in New York City, hoped that the wall would “give the American people the appetite to have comprehensive immigration reform”, which is his main priority.
As for Balcazar, his interest in the wall is strictly tied to the struggles of Puerto Rico, where work is scarce amid an economic crisis. “It’s like this,” he said. “Lady Gaga, she wears some pretty wild stuff on stage … But when she goes to her tailor and asks for it, they’re not going to say, ‘That looks terrible.’”
Ultimately, Balcazar thinks both Mexico and the United States should focus more on economic development than policing the border. “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”