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Potential U.S.-Mexico Wall Builder Has Family In The U.S. Illegally


UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Chanting) Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.


That chanting is from a Donald Trump rally held last year in nearby Anaheim, Calif. Now the Department of Homeland Security is taking bids to build that wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of construction firms across the country have been scrambling to get their designs in to win the lucrative contracts, including an unlikely builder in Fort Worth, Texas. Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga owns the Penna Group that specializes in large-scale federal projects. He says his motivation to build this wall is his conscience. He fears other companies could build walls that would harm people. I asked him about his design. He wouldn't share everything because he didn't want to tip off the competition.

MICHAEL EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: I'll tell you as much as I possibly can. There are two different options. There's one, a concrete border wall which the government wants. It's 30 feet in height. It's got a 6-foot footing. And that has anti-tamper and anti-climb features.

So we have several different options that meet what the government is wanting in terms of security but at the same time is a very humane obstruction. And I just didn't want to wake up on a Sunday morning and read about, you know, a dozen Guatemalan kids that were electrocuted or seriously injured. That would not have been something that my conscience would have - would allow.

GREENE: Now, the thing that might surprise you about Evangelista-Ysasaga is that he's is the grandson of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. And even today, many of his relatives are not here legally.

And what does your family think of you offering to build this wall?

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: Well, you know, that's a - (laughter) - that's an interesting question because I've got 57 first cousins. And I've got more aunts than I could count on two hands. And they were initially not very happy. And I received a call from one of my aunts. I mean, she didn't take a breath for about 30 minutes. I couldn't get a word in at all.

But after she stopped speaking, I was able to explain it to her why we decided to become a productive part of the solution rather than sit on the sidelines. And she understood and, you know, really got it. And she's actually behind our efforts at this point.

GREENE: Because aren't you a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform?


GREENE: You wouldn't strike many people as someone who would be interested in building the kind of wall that President Trump wants to build.

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: The American people - and certainly our politicians - do not have the appetite to pass any new laws regarding immigration reform when we aren't securing our borders. That has to occur first. It has to happen in that order. It has - first we have to secure our borders. And then we can have the discussion, a meaningful, rational discussion about comprehensive immigration reform.

GREENE: Do you think the wall you're proposing, I mean, I just, you know, apprehensions at the border have been dropping the last 10 years. They're a fraction of what they were at their height. Will the wall you're proposing actually stop people from coming across the border? Will it make a difference?

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: Yeah, I think so. You know, the whole goal of this is to secure our borders and to maximize the obstruction to come in. Now, you know, anybody that - any federal contractor that tells you that he's going to build a wall that's going to a hundred percent keep everybody out, he's just absolutely lying to you. That's not the point. The point is to make an obstruction that is intimidating and that maximizes our security.

GREENE: If you'll forgive me for asking a very blunt question - but your company could make a lot of money building this wall. In a way, I could see this at least appearing like you are doing this to try and make a profit and trying to...


GREENE: ...Justify it in your mind to make yourself feel as good about it as you can.

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: No, no, the decision that we made is actually in reverse. And I do appreciate that question very much. I'm glad you asked it. Let me be real blunt with you in return. You know, we have a lot of work. And there are a lot of other federal projects where we could make the same amount of money without all of this controversy. We made the decision as a company to step into the fray on this issue because of our conscience, not because the money. The money we could make in other projects without having all of this heat.

GREENE: Are you worried at all that this message that you're sending that you're doing this because you think it's an important step to get to comprehensive immigration reform and get to offering a path to citizenship to people who are in the country illegally, that's going to hurt your chances of actually getting this contract?

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: Well, I've been on record about immigration reform for 10 years. So if it was going to hurt my chances, you know, I blew that 10 years ago when I stepped into this conversation.

GREENE: Well, listen. Thanks so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.

EVANGELISTA-YSASAGA: Absolutely, thanks.

GREENE: That was Michael Evangelista-Ysasaga. He owns the Penna Group. It's one of the companies that has turned in proposals to build the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.