Work-In-Progress Update: April 2013

Last week I had a really great phone call with Darren Petrucci, Suncor Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Arizona State University, and we talked about previous work that each of us had done on border design. Previously, when I worked on the Border Town project, my goal was to create design interventions for people in border communities. It seems like this project will be an extension of that mission, while also combining what I learned from my thesis on the future of border security.

One thing Darren and I discussed was the fact that while governments are extremely good at inventing new initiatives for dealing with illegal activity at borders (Operation Gatekeeper in 1995, for example, or the “smart border agreements” devised under the Container Security Initiative, itself an offshoot of the then-new DHS), they have a terrible track record of dealing with legal travelers or legal trade. In general, most of these initiatives have to deal with things like hiring quotas and documentation, as well as the placement of specific border crossings to push undocumented migrants further into the desert so that the crossing itself becomes a deterrent. (The only thing this has done is increase the dependence of migrants on polleros, most of whom are in the employ of cartels, thereby opening an unintentional revenue stream for the very drug trade that the Customs and Border Patrol Agency is committed to stopping.)

It’s trite to suggest that the solution to all this is privatization, but it definitely came up. After all, the government has had its shot, and its greatest accomplishment seems to be the fact that border arrests have gone down 58%, while deaths at the border have continued to rise. And in fact, the diminishing arrests may have nothing to do with border security at all: a declining economy has proved the best deterrent. And legal migrants being educated in the US are choosing to leave, because the H1B visa and Green Card system takes so long. This was the thrust of the letter that Mark Zuckerberg and others wrote to Congress regarding immigration, and the pressure that the private sector is putting on government makes me wonder if they’re ready to take a more active role — beyond lobbying — in coming up with a solution.

One of the solutions Darren and I discussed was the creation of actual border towns populated by recruiters, put in strategic locations along the border and intended to act as training centers and prototyping facilities — for new products, new services, and new hires. In this regard they wouldn’t be too far off from the Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation (CITE) city, in Lea County, New Mexico. CITE is an empty city that corporations can rent for the purposes of prototyping and research. If you want to test out your new driverless car system with real roads and real signals, it’s a good place to do it. What I’m wondering is if it’s time for something similar along the border, but populated by businesses, universities, organizations, and agencies who have a specific quota of H1B and other visas to hand out. I know, it’s weird, but we’re here to do weird.