Immigration Nation

The Architecture Lobby calls for pledges against designing detention centers

The Dade Juvenile Residential Facility in Homestead, Florida, as seen during a protest in June 2019. (uusc4all/Flickr)

The Architecture Lobby (T-A-L) and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) are once again calling on architects to boycott the design and construction of immigration detention centers and deterrence infrastructure. 

Both groups issued a joint statement in April of last year condemning the U.S. Justice Department’s zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy, and are now asking architects to sign a pledge saying they refuse to participate in projects that have anything to do with border walls, Border Patrol stations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, detention facilities, or juvenile holding centers. The pledge also encourages architects and affiliated industry professionals to speak out against the reportedly atrocious conditions of these facilities and to organize in their individual workplace or educational institution to combat any involvement. 

“These violent and racist policies are designed to cause fear and chaos,” said T-A-L and ADPSR in a joint press release. “[They] target those seeing asylum and refuge, and weaponize the built environment against immigrants.”

According to both advocacy organizations, architects have the responsibility to “uphold the public’s health, safety, and welfare,” and because of this, they must stand up against such human rights violations. Not only is T-A-L trying to get more architects on board via this pledge, but it’s also offering services to firms, universities, or groups that need help organizing in the workplace or creating divestment campaigns.   

You can read the growing list of pledge supporters here and sign on yourself.



This call comes on the heels of the American Institute of Architectsrecent release denouncing the conditions of detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Per its Code of Ethics, AIA members are also urged to “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” It said its members must support government policies and regulations that enhance transparency on the issue, as well as fight for the creation of standards that improve the health, safety, and welfare requirements of all buildings. The AIA also called for building inspectors to ensure that structures are in full compliance with current building codes and that any violations regarding health and safety be fixed immediately. 

Though these leading architectural organizations believe that socially-responsible architects should be in no way involved in reforming immigration detention centers or similar buildings, there are some architects that think the opposite. Last summer, when CityLab reported on T-A-L and ADPSR’s initial call to boycott, it highlighted the opinion of one designer at Gehry Partners who believed design professionals “should take the lead and devise alternative environments to house immigrants with dignity.” Instead of staying silent, architects should advocate for facilities with natural light, ample space, good ventilation, access to the outdoors, and privacy, she said.

Image of man walking next to border patrol facility and walkway

This image was taken from a car on the Mexico side of the Paso Del Norte International Bridge border crossing where U.S. immigration officials are reportedly turning away migrants before they get to the checkpoint at the U.S. border. (Iwan Baan)

It seems, however, that the most pressing architectural issue here is not the creation of new detention centers that are designed in a healthy way, it’s that the ones currently being used weren’t programmed for housing hundreds and thousands of migrants in the first place. Last July, AN published a piece on the brief architectural success of the Tornillo-Guadalupe International Bridge near El Paso, which opened in 2016 and was anticipated to support a slew of traffic. Though the structure was highly-lauded as a “collaborative binational security effort,” wrote Erseal Kripa and Stephen Muller of AGENCY Architecture, it was a failure due to lack of an economic engine. The site became a census-designated tent city known as Tornillo, where it held thousands of migrant children until it was shut down in January. U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it will reopen the site this week to house adults instead due to overcrowding in nearby Texas detention centers. 

These situations and calls from both sides of the aisle raise the question of whether architects should step in to revamp the current conditions by offering their design services, or should they instead use their voices to urge political lawmakers to end the detainment of migrants altogether?

Is this a black and white issue? Is it ethical for architects to do both?

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