border engineer
Gus Bova

Engineer Who Helped Build the Wall Details Its Weaknesses

As you might have guessed, the U.S.-Mexico border wall is not very hard to get around.


Above: Joseph Jarvis at his home in Mission.

Joseph Jarvis knows the U.S.-Mexico border wall more intimately than most. A 71-year-old contractor who works in engineering and construction, Jarvis oversaw the fabrication and installation of a short stretch of border wall near Brownsville in 2011, along with a number of electronic access gates. A Mexican immigrant himself, Jarvis steers clear of politics when he talks about the wall. For him, the barrier was just like any other construction project: a way to make money. He’s not for or against it on moral grounds — he just thinks the damn thing doesn’t work.

“The wall is a joke,” Jarvis, who now lives in Mission, said bluntly when I first called him in January. “It does nothing to preclude ingress of narcotics and people.”

It’s no secret that the wall is far from impregnable. In 2012,  a pair of sandal-clad anti-wall activists scaled the Arizona border wall in 9 seconds, without ladders or climbing equipment, and posted a video of their feat on YouTube. Border Patrol itself has called the wall a mere “speed bump in the desert” — a minor inconvenience to give agents slightly better odds of catching up to illegal entrants. But Jarvis puts an unusually fine point on the wall’s limits: He climbed the barrier in his 60s, and even made his own climbing shoes to make the job easier.

Jarvis worked briefly on a new set of border wall access gates late last year, but he isn’t currently involved in building Trump’s wall. The Observer spoke with him at his home in February.

Drawing on your experience, how effective or ineffective is the wall?

I don’t get into the politics of it, but just looking at it as a physical barrier, it’s an easy thing to overcome. The river is a much more substantial barrier.

Let me give you an example: When we were building this particular portion of the wall [in Brownsville], we’d often leave tools on the other side that we weren’t at that point working on. Rather than going all around the fence that we had already built, it was easier to just climb over, pick up the tool or whatever and then push it through the spaces between the bollards. And it would only take us 15 seconds to climb up and then maybe 5 seconds to slide down. So I mean you’re talking about a 20-second barrier for somebody … and I mean, I was 60 years old, so it’s not like it takes an athlete to do it.

You climbed it with no equipment or anything?

Actually, I was able to design some triangle-shaped wedge-type wooden shoes, with a strap around them. You put them over your shoes and they wedge between the bollards and you just step up, step up, all the way to the top. Sort of like how electricians climb up poles by using spikes. Well, you can’t spike steel, but you can wedge into steel, and wood actually wedges very tightly into steel. Guys that are younger and more athletic can do it easily without those.

jarvis, border wall
Sketch, made by Jarvis, of border wall-climbing shoes. Gus Bova
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What about other ways of getting through, like cutting the steel?

It would take some cutting equipment, but you could also do it with abrasive wires, which is something you can put in your pocket.

What about the wall stopping drugs?

If it doesn’t stop people from coming in, how does it stop drugs? Number one, drugs don’t come in on their own; they don’t have feet. Number two, you can actually sneak bundles through the gaps in the bollards. There’s about a four-inch gap, you know, you don’t have to package it more tightly than that. I mean, none of it seems intelligent to me.

border wall, engineer
Ways of breaching the border fence. Government Accountability Office, February 2017

As an immigrant yourself, have you ever felt conflicted about working on the wall?

From my point of view, it’s a job; I want to do it because it puts beans on the table. But whether I think it’s a useful thing? No, and the money could be used for better purposes. It’s just that I make no difference by refusing to have the contract.

Trump is building some of his wall up to 12 feet higher than the existing 18-foot wall. Would that make it harder to climb?

It would be a matter of an extra 5, maybe 10 seconds.