WashU Expert: Immigration Architecture and the Border

A border Port of Entry in Ojinaga, Mexico.

Posted by Liam Otten July 15, 2019


Walls and fences, gates and guard towers, tents and enclosures. For migrants and refugees, the architecture of the southern U.S. border can seem as harsh as the Chihuahuan Desert and implacable as the Rio Grande.

In recent weeks, images of children locked in prison-like conditions have sparked heated debates relating to U.S. immigration policy, the role of the built environment, and the line between legitimate security and gratuitous distress. But underlying such debates is a simple question:

Is it possible to design a border architecture that is welcoming rather than foreboding?

So asks professor Stephen Leet. Last spring, he led a graduate studio focusing on the border between Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Mexico. The aim was to explore how architects might create spaces and landscapes that are safe and humane while still incorporating security and processing protocols.

In this Q&A—accompanied by photos from the studio trip and renderings from students’ proposed plans—Leet discusses the studio, the state of border architecture and prospects for improvement.

This migrant housing proposal, by Muzi Dong, centers on a garden-like courtyard.

How would you characterize architecture on the U.S./Mexico border?

The majority of U.S. governmental buildings are Ports of Entry at border crossings and regional Border Patrol facility headquarters. The fundamental problem is the absence of infrastructure designed to house asylum seekers.

In 2009, a Homeland Security internal review noted that “With only a few exceptions, the facilities that ICE uses to detain aliens were built and operate as jails and prisons to confine pre-trial and sentenced felons.” In 2011, ICE director John Morton pointed out that hundreds of facilities scattered across the southwest were “largely designed for penal, not civil, detention.”

So these are re-purposed buildings. They were never designed nor programmed for the housing and caring of detained immigrants. And the U.S. government has done nothing to improve conditions, nor to implement ICE’s own reform proposals.

What might a more welcoming border look like?

Perhaps the best way to answer this is to contrast the crossing at Presidio and Ojinaga. The U.S. Port of Entry is a ramshackle group of low-budget buildings and mobile trailers. The Mexican Port of Entry features newly constructed buildings designed by architects with spacious lobbies, courtyards and shaded gardens. Aesthetically, it’s akin to a small airport.

Describe your studio. How would you characterize the student proposals?

The demonization of immigrants and the preoccupation with building walls are political and cultural problems. Our studio imagined a radical shift in intention and agenda. We explored how one might design Residential Family Centers (to use ICE’s designation) that would prioritize humane treatment and care rather than barriers, incarceration and interrogation.

To do so, we researched the spaces of small towns, enclaves, monasteries and campuses. We also looked at regional courtyard housing, which is designed to mitigate arid desert climates, and 100-plus-degree summer temperatures, through shade and water retention.

Above left: Architecture students approach the U.S. Border Patrol station in Presidio, Texas. Above right: ICE Residential Family Center proposal by Nandan Kelotra Shaded courtyard and garden spaces at the entrance prior to processing.

One of the most difficult challenges is the need for a perimeter that detains inhabitants but also protects them from wild animals, intruders and the near-constant desert winds. One border patrol officer told us that on the day before our site visit, winds had driven burning embers from the Mexican side over the Rio Grande and into Presidio, causing several house fires.

Most of our projects incorporated the spatial and social qualities of collective housing: from the scale of the family to the scale of a community; from the dwelling and patio to the courtyard, street and plaza. The character and atmosphere are more similar to that of a small campus than a punitive detention facility.

Read the original story in the Source and see additional images here>>

Additional Coverage

Architecture students re-imagine design possibilities for ports of entry at US-Mexico border in The Big Bend Sentinel>>