They’ve received death threats and had profanities and rocks hurled at them. One company’s tractor was stolen.
For the few Hispanic-owned construction firms daring to bid on building a piece of President Donald Trump’s border wall, this is the emotional price of doing business. Owners say they have been accused of betraying their community. Some say they have had to swallow their own qualms about Trump’s contentious immigration policies.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘You’re Latino. How can you build a wall to keep other Latinos out?’ We had to do a lot of soul-searching before we jumped into this because it’s obviously a very, very controversial topic,” said Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga, chief executive and owner of The Penna Group, a firm headquartered in Fort Worth.
Evangelista-Ysasaga, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, said he fielded five death threats one morning alone this week from “random people calling into the office and just screaming.”
Every sovereign nation has a duty to defend its borders, he told callers. Unfortunately, he said, a “certain segment” of American Latinos have cast supporters of the border wall as “racist.”
Work on the border wall has stirred such impassioned reactions that only a tiny fraction of the country’s nearly half-million Hispanic-owned construction firms are even considering profiting from Trump’s wall.
Of the approximately 200 companies that have responded to the federal government’s two requests for proposals for a solid concrete border wall and another wall design, at least 32 companies are Hispanic-owned, according to a Washington Post analysis of a federal database. The deadline for proposals has been extended to April 4.
Construction executives, in interviews with The Washington Post, said they weighed their misgivings about building the border wall against the benefits of providing jobs, growing their businesses, improving the local economy and having the ability to influence the construction of a safer, more humane wall.
“I try to be politically neutral in my decision-making process,” said Al Anderson, general manager of KWR Construction, a Hispanic-owned firm based in Sierra Vista, Ariz., that helped build the border fence as well as related roads and lighting. “We want whatever jobs here along the border that we can get, and set aside our personal beliefs to support our employees.”
Border security work has always been contentious, Anderson said. He recounted Mexicans harassing his workers in profanity-laced Spanish and chucking rocks over a sliver of fencing as they installed lighting. One of his employees donned a bulletproof vest at work every day.
“It was a rough environment, and I expect it to be more charged now than it has been in the history of working along the border,” Anderson said. “Not only are Mexicans infuriated with the United States, but people in the United States are also infuriated.”
Anderson said that if his company is selected, he expects some of his construction workers to quit rather than to build the wall.
“We’ll have people who are conscientious objectors against this particular project,” he said. “They live in a small community and they don’t want to get threatening calls in the middle of the night.”
There are also economic risks. Some local and state governments are considering a boycott of companies involved in building the 30-foot-high wall that the government has specified must be “aesthetically pleasing in color,” at least from the United States side.
“We want to do everything within our power to slow or stop the Trump agenda, especially the border wall that is built on hatred and fear,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a Democrat in the California State Assembly who represents the state’s southernmost district encompassing San Ysidro, adjacent to the Mexico border. She introduced a bill last week that would require public-employee retirement funds to divest from firms that work on the wall.
Patrick Balcazar, owner of a Puerto Rico-based firm, said he feels that the billions of dollars the border wall would cost – which Congress has yet to authorize – would be better spent on other priorities.
The Department of Homeland Security has estimated the wall would cost $21.6 billion, nearly double what Trump’s campaign had cited.
But Puerto Rico is in the depths of an economic crisis. And its construction industry is in a depression. “Work is work,” Balcazar said. “I’m not a big fan of how Lady Gaga dresses, but if I’m a tailor and she wants me to make her a dress, I will make a dress and I will tell her it looks good on her.”
He expected to get more pushback on his decision to submit a wall design proposal from his firm, San Diego Project Management PSC, but said that “most of my rank and file recognize it for what it is.”
Mario Burgos, president and chief executive of Burgos Group in Albuquerque, says the wall construction work could also help stimulate his state’s economy. New Mexico posted a 6.8 percent unemployment rate in February, the highest in the nation.
“Employees are happy to know there’s a possibility for work, whether they are Hispanic or not,” Burgos said.
In the border town of El Paso, where a fence separates the United States from Mexico, Julian Carrizal said he looks forward to the construction of a more robust wall to keep out what he considers unfair competition from Mexicans not authorized to work in the United States.
“When you have somebody come in with no liability insurance and no workman’s comp, they can practically do the job for nothing,” said Carrizal, president of J Carrizal General Construction. “That hurts our ability to compete.”
Carrizal said he employs some Mexican workers living across the border in Ciudad Juarez who have the required work documents. Some of them may even be involved in building the Trump wall, further cutting off their own families and friends.
Evangelista-Ysasaga said his executive team was motivated to bid by reports that some companies were considering designs for a lethal electrical wall.
“There were some holdouts, but ultimately everyone decided the risk was too great to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “We would rather be a productive part of the solution and propose a humane option to secure our border.”
He said his company has spent the past four years in the field working on a border road and gathering data on what type of wall would be most effective.
“We’ve picked a very hot-button project to be involved in but at the end of the day, it is our hope that once we secure our border, we can finally pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Evangelista-Ysasaga said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Tracy Jan