Mayer said, “So much of what we experience is a lot of hysteria that happens inland in the United States, and yet people don’t realize what it’s like down here near the border.” He explained that, contrary to popular opinion, “It’s not filled with crime and it’s not filled with all this destruction and, for the most part, people really value both sides.” After viewing the competition site, he asked, “Instead of building walls and having a competition to build walls, why don’t we put into effect a competition that can build relationships?”

Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network and Humane Borders, a group that tracks border deaths, agreed that architects could put their imaginations to better use. The border wall has not stopped migration, Molina said, only pushed people into the most dangerous, inhospitable areas of the Arizona desert. “To just demonize the people crossing is a very short-sighted view which actually contributes to their invisibility and to the violence,” she said. But then what should architects do, if not design a wall? Molina suggested that since most migrants travel at night and often get lost, architects could help create beacons to safety.

If you speak to most border residents, the whole idea of this competition kind of misses the point,” said Vicki Gaubeca, the director of the ACLU-New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Many people have a misconception that the border is just a line, she said. But within the 100-air-mile enforcement zone given to Customs and Border Protection, Latino and Native American residents are frequently subjected to racial profiling at the many checkpoints far from the actual boundary line. Gaubeca called it a “virtual cage.”

She strongly opposed the notion that the border wall could be made better by design. “Why improve on a bad idea?” she asked. With all the accoutrements that you want to put on that wall, it’s still a wall, and it’s not a bridge.” Instead, she suggested that architects focused their skills on the colonias, unincorporated border towns that lack infrastructure like roads, potable water, sewers, and dams to protect them from flooding. “It would be great if architects actually got into doing that instead of developing something that could be so damaging to our communities and our environment.”

For Teresa Leal, the director of a small art museum in Nogales, Arizona, the border wall is more than an inconvenience. It divides her tribal lands, separating her people from their sacred sites and burial grounds. As a member of the Opata tribe, she is part of a network of other tribal nations divided by the border, including the Tohono O’odham and Apache nations. “As Indian people, I can tell you this corridor for thousands of years has been our corridor,” she said. In her daily trips to and from sites in Mexico, she must flash her permanent residency card at the border checkpoints, a daily reminder that she is a foreigner in her ancestral land.

As a member of the Border Patrol Victims Network, Leal also supports a dozen families who have lost loved ones to border patrol shootings, several of whom were killed on the Mexican side of the wall. For her, the architectural competition to design a wall is “offensive, ridiculous. … It’s just as if they were trying to design a guillotine, like in the French Revolution.” She urged architects to tell Trump and other politicians who support building the border wall, “‘We can’t be your co-conspirators. We can’t help you to look good. No matter what you build, it’s going to have the same purpose.’”

In the border city of El Paso, Texas, the sense of division feels especially sharp for Guillermo Glenn, who has lived in the border region since 1973. He used to cross the border into Juarez all the time, and remembers the city before NAFTA took effect. People “went to Juarez to celebrate, to cultural events, to the cathedral and the market.” But now, with the long lines at the border crossing and harassment by border patrol, along with the increase in poverty and cartel violence in Juarez, no one wants to go. “Some of the young people don’t even know what Juarez looks like anymore,” he said. Instead, he said, the crossing in El Paso has increasingly come to feel like a segregated passage that privileges the transnational corporations that run the low-wage factories known as maquiladoras in Juarez, while pedestrians and vehicles must wait in long lines under the hot sun.

Multi-functional housing informed by the extended family structures of informal settlements in Tijuana and immigrant neighborhoods in San Diego.Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman

“Perhaps architects can design really great bridges that take into consideration the great humanity that lives on both sides of the border,” he said. For him, the border, bristling as it is with military personnel and concrete blockades, offers “nothing that would give the idea that you are going into a great country or coming from a great country.” This sentiment was echoed by Christian Ramirez of the Southern Border Communities Coalition: “The indignity of having my grandparents wait in line for two to three hours so they can visit their great grandchild, or having folks standing under the sun and under the rain waiting to enter the U.S.—that’s where we need to really begin putting our talent towards.”

Some architects have been trying to do just that. Charles Dorn, a principal at Hacker Architects, has been designing at the border for 30 years. Hacker’s design for the bus processing station at the Juarez-Lincoln Land Port of Entry in Laredo, Texas, is currently under construction. He relishes the logistical, environmental, and social challenge of designing border crossings.

“I think that the more the ports are symbols of welcoming, the less important the wall becomes,” he said. “But if the ports themselves are intimidating and painful and scary, then the border itself is a lightning rod for attention.”

He considered the border wall design competition provocative, and saw its potential to draw in an immense range of ideas from architects. “From an architectural perspective, they will approach the problem much more compassionately than somebody who looks at it as a technological problem,” he said. However, he added that the concept itself might be fatally flawed: “It could be that the fact that the wall exists in the first place is the reason” the immigration situation is “as bad as it is.”

At Jones Studio, the designers of the new Mariposa Land Port of Entry in Nogales, one of the busiest commercial and cargo truck land ports on the border, were also excited to talk about border crossings. “We set out from the beginning to make the experience one of an oasis, of moving through a beautiful garden,” said Jacob Benyi, a principal at Jones Studio. Their design offers a rare patch of greenery in the desert, with special attention paid to the comfort of pedestrians crossing through on foot and to easing the tensions of border patrol officers. An extensive and colorful shade structure presents the visual of a waving American flag from a distance.

A walkway at the Mariposa Land Port of Entry, designed by Jones Studio.Bill Timmerman

Brian Farling, a lead designer at Jones Studio, considered the border wall a “folly.” But in thinking about the competition, both architects also wondered whether, through design, the wall could be turned on its head, if architects could “come up with a completely different program that exists along the border that somehow benefits both countries.”

However, they would rather work on another border crossing than a wall. “A port is all about people; it’s a threshold, it’s a point of crossing, a point of interaction for commerce, discussion, transit, ideas,” said Benyi. “The wall is the antithesis of that. It’s trying to stop all of those things. It would be a completely different design issue to try and deal with that.”

Other architects who focus primarily on border projects agreed. Ana Martínez Ortega, member of the Tijuana-based multi-disciplinary collective Torolab, wondered what the point of the competition was. “A third wall attempt? A bigger, skinnier, maybe more conceptual wall, really? What else could it bring to the table?” she asked. “The truth is, I don’t even care, and I think none of us ‘border citizens’ do, because it does not create anything that can enhance the border condition.” In contrast, at Torolab’s studio in Camino Verde, an informal, low-income Tijuana neighborhood, the collective holds workshops and programs for migrant residents to foster relationships and generate sustainable income.

Architect, urbanist, and professor Teddy Cruz, who has been working on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border for 25 years, presented the competition as a moment in which architects cannot remain neutral. Sometimes, he said, architects must decide when not to build, since the politics of neutrality has rendered architecture a pure decoration of very unjust policies.”

He added, “Instead of building walls that are dividing communities and dividing environments, we should be looking at border regions as laboratories for rethinking citizenship, for rethinking resilience, for producing new strategies of interdependence and cooperation and co-existence.” This framework is central to his own practice, in which he has designed multi-functional housing informed by the creative building strategies, extended family structures, and cultural life of informal settlements in Tijuana and immigrant neighborhoods in San Diego.

Perhaps there is a broader lesson that can be drawn from the controversy over the border wall. “That wall is reproduced everywhere inside of our American cities,” Cruz said. They might not contain physical walls, but America’s cities are defined by “urban policies that divide jurisdictions and communities” and “an urban asymmetry that has perpetuated socio-economic inequality.” Even places far from the border, it seems, could use some more crossings.