Jones Studio modernizes U.S.–Mexico border crossings with one simple idea: the border is what connects us

Diplomatic Design

Jones Studio modernizes U.S.–Mexico border crossings with one simple idea: the border is what connects us

The central spine of the Mariposa Land Port of Entry campus was coined “the Oasis” and includes a lush desert landscape that acts as an area of respite for Port officers and staff. (Bill Timmerman)

The United States has the longest country-to-country border in the world—the one to the north that we share with Canada. Yet in any given news cycle, that border is rarely mentioned. The Canadian border lacks any sense of drama, even though roughly 400,000 people cross it every day—my firm, Jones Studio, renovated the Pacific Highway Land Port of Entry (LPOE) outside Blaine, Washington, in 2023 without any physical barriers in sight. By contrast, the United States’s southern border with Mexico is simply referred to as “the border.” And although less than one-third the length of the Canadian boundary, the southern border is in the news every day, always mentioned with a combination of fear and xenophobia—a useful fundraising prop for ambitious politicians.

As I write this, news about the U.S.–Mexico border has reached a fever pitch, with Republicans in Congress blocking a bipartisan border bill while fringe groups rally in support of Texas’s openly defiant stance on immigration: The Texas governors’ disregard for a U.S. Supreme Court order preventing states from impeding a federal agent. Since 2007, Jones Studio has had a presence along the Arizona and California alignment with Mexico. What my colleagues and I have witnessed is in no way a security crisis: no caravans, no invasions, no surges. But the looping film footage showing hundreds of men, women, and children seeking a better life for their families is heartbreakingly real. Let us accurately acknowledge that this is a crisis of human suffering. It’s a culmination of the inaction of our elected officials, who have no incentive to turn off their fundraising faucet, and the complicity of news commentators, who (perhaps unintentionally) divert voter attention away from reality in return for higher ratings.

A canopy of color—red, white, and blue—stretches 1,000 feet across the Mariposa site as seen from the Mexico side of the southern border. (Bill Timmerman)

The federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) is charged with overseeing the planning and construction of United States Land Ports of Entry. In addition to airports and seaports, our country maintains 167 land ports. There are 119 regulated crossing points along the Canadian dividing line and 27 along Mexico’s. Arizona benefits from eight of these southern LPOEs. And I use the word “benefit” with intention, because, as of 2023, Mexico surpassed Canada as America’s top trading partner: bilateral trade totaled $798 billion. Land ports are not only physical and symbolic gateways into the United States; they are essential to the management, control, and reduced risk of commerce, making them essential to economic stability both nationally and locally.

Inspired by the agricultural fields in the valley laid out in seemingly endless furrows plowed into the land, the design of the North Annex Building in San Luis uses this same repetitive, linear structure to form the building and guide visitors through the space. (Bill Timmerman)

Thanks to federal infrastructure investment, the southern ports (most built in the early 1970s) have been selected for modernization, expansion, and security upgrades. In their early years, these buildings served their purpose very well. In the last few decades, the staggering increases in commercial trucking, private vehicle, and even pedestrian traffic (combined with decades of deferred funding), caused most of these 20th-century facilities to feel significantly undersized and haphazardly adapted. As an architecture firm fortunate to be one of several design architects trusted to evaluate, provide master plans, and design new LPOEs on behalf of GSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), we can point to many successes in creating compounds that represent both the dignity of the United States government, and project CBP’s identity as a serious law enforcement agency. The GSA has placed LPOE’s under their Design Excellence Program assuring only the highest quality of design and environmental stewardship, which results in a track record that proves the impact thoughtful, yet pragmatic, architecture can have in the service of respect, safety, and commerce.

Jones Studio, Gruen Associates, and Hensel Phelps Contractors, along with a very forward-thinking and capable team of engineers, and subcontractors, are currently building our fifth LPOE. The project includes the full modernization and expansion of the new San Luis LPOE, south of Yuma, Arizona. The Design Excellence Program mandates that our design decisions not only have to respond to CBP security requirements, they must also inspire an architecture sincerely projecting a “Welcome to America” image that represents the best ideals of our nation. When complete, the San Luis LPOE will be the first net-zero port in the world and one of the most respectful, sensitive, and environmentally responsible LPOE in the country.

interior of land port entry
At the Mariposa facility, pedestrian processing queuing is orderly and calm, with views of the landscape beyond. (Bill Timmerman)

The San Luis LPOE enjoys a mutually beneficial cooperation agreement currently in place in Southwest Arizona, near where the Colorado River passes through on its way to the Sea of Cortez. Here, one can find 230,000 acres of irrigated agriculture and a year-round growing season producing 90 percent of the leafy greens consumed in the U.S. The crops require a large labor force to plant, maintain and harvest. Yuma and the small border town of San Luis cannot supply enough workers; their much larger Mexican sister city, San Luis Rio Colorado, can. Work visas have been issued to more than 8,000 migrant farm workers to cross the San Luis LPOE on foot every morning and return to their family’s homes at the end of each day. Although this positive cross-border story is never reported on the evening news, it reveals that where there is an economic necessity, we can convert broken immigration policy into healthy productivity.

Another example of respectful policy can be found in our first border project in Nogales, Arizona. Because Nogales is a convenient location for import trucking companies to access the U.S. interstate highway system, tens of thousands of loaded semis from South America, Central America and Mexico choose Mariposa as a preferred crossing point. Our solution reimagined conventional port circulation and used buildings and landscaping to define enforcement zones as opposed to relying on razor-wire fences.

To reduce energy usage, skylights run the length of most spaces in the San Luis facility. (Bill Timmerman)

On our first site visit, we found the fumes, heat, dust, and mixing of traffic and pedestrians appalling. Customs agents and visitors alike were subjected to the inevitable outcomes of an overstressed system of inspection, clearance, and violator management, which was just struggling to keep up. We realized it would not be enough to solve issues of circulation and program adjacencies. In order to improve safety and health and remove stress, the new land port would aspire to be an honest expression of welcome and respect. A lush landscape in combination with thoughtful architecture tuned to the Sonoran Desert environment would address the functional challenges, while mitigating the intimidation inherent in any personal inspection experience.

Nogales receives less than four inches of rain annually, yet our design concept was one of a garden. It would have been irresponsible to rely on an already stressed city water system, so we designed all horizontal surfaces including pavement, parking and rooftops to channel rainwater to sunken planters, filtering pollutants before being collected and piped to underground storage. The first monsoon rain of each season fills the storage facility to its one-million-gallon capacity. During the arid months, the harvested water is then pumped to irrigate the 54-acre site.

Pedestrians walk beneath an art piece by Matthew Moore entitled, Passage, an initiative of GSA’s Art in Architecture Program (Bill Timmerman)

Unlike the remote location of the Nogales LPOE, our modernization and expansion of the existing LPOE in Otay Mesa, California, literally defined the southern edge of this small community east of San Diego. An imposed urban edge brings additional design responsibilities due to the visual impact any large government law enforcement facility will have on a small town. Following the Nogales LPOE’s innovative master planning ideas, we let architecture and landscape strengthen the street edge while securing the commercial trucking compound. After a year of Otay Mesa operation, the previous old memory of 2000 feet of chain link and threatening coils of barbed wire has been replaced by a thoughtful, shaded, people oriented, walkable urban streetscape. What once was a threatening image has now become a community point of pride.

border crossing facility with art work
Pedestrians walk beneath a digital art piece by Kimsooja entitled, An Album: Sewing into Borderlines, an initiative of GSA’s Art in Architecture Program. (Bill Timmerman)

How does a large team of professional consultants, GSA project managers and CBP commanders consistently reach design consensus and sustain enthusiasm amid the political contentiousness of the Southern border? For Jones Studio and all our partners, port design is shaped by one simple idea: the border is what connects us.

Eddie Jones is the founder of Jones Studio, a Phoenix-based architecture and design firm.