Private landowners are fighting Trump's border wall

Private landowners are fighting Trump's border wall
President Donald J. Trump stands before a section of border fencing during his visit to the border area of Otay Mesa, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, a neighborhood along the Mexican border in San Diego, Calif. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Three years into what can only be hoped is his sole term in office, one of Donald Trump’s key promises and desires—expanding the barrier between the United States and Mexico along the full length of their mutual border—is still partially hung up in numerous legal entanglements. That includes the ruling earlier this month that he cannot transfer funds from the Pentagon to build the border wall and an investigation into construction contracts being handed out to Republican campaign donors.


Trump’s vow to complete 450 miles of new wall by the end of his first term seems as far out of reach as his DOA plan in January 2017 to build it and make Mexico pay for it. But as part of the budget compromise agreed to in Congress this month, $1.4 billion is being set aside to build the wall. Estimates run as high as $12 million a mile.

So far, just 93 miles of new wall has been built. Most of that is on federal land where ramshackle barriers existed previously. The exact path the wall will take has not yet been decided, but of 162 miles that will wind through South Texas, 144 miles are on privately owned land, according to Customs and Border Protection. Only three miles of that has been acquired.

The wall is being built well back from the border, and that means many land owners will see their holdings split. While some have voluntarily said okay to government plans, others are holding out, suing or planning to do so, or giving in resignedly rather than engage in a fight over eminent domain that they will almost inevitably lose in the courts. Zolan Kanno-Youngs tells the story at The New York Times of Richard Drawe and his wife, who reluctantly agreed to allow the government to build the wall on land his family has owned since the 1920s:

Mr. Drawe, 69, doubts the wall will do much to stop illegal immigration, and though he supports the president who ordered it, he believes that the construction will “ruin” his life. But selling the land early on seemed better and cheaper than facing the government in court, only to have it take the land anyway, he reasoned. The wall, the lights and the roads will be built on about a dozen acres that his grandfather bought in the 1920s, and that will cut him off from the priceless views of the Rio Grande that he cherishes.

“We just finally gave up,” he said. “If they offered me a million dollars to build the wall, I would refuse it if I knew they wouldn’t build it. I don’t want the money. This is my life here.”

Once the government makes its request, landowners don’t have many options, according to experts in eminent domain law. They can go to court to get more than the offered compensation. But their chances of winning the right to keep the government from taking the land are slim to nil, especially when eminent domain is undertaken in an emergency, which is what the Trump regime has labeled the situation at the border—a situation that the White House has done a great deal to exacerbate with rotten, inhumane policies. The government can start building on land it wants before payment arrangements are settled, which often take years of litigation.

Kanno-Youngs notes that after President George W. Bush signed a 2006 bill to install fencing along the border, the feds filed more than 300 cases to pry land from its owners. More than a decade later, 46 of those cases are still being argued, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. Trump’s team has filed 48 new lawsuits as the government seeks to build on other properties.

The feds plan to build the wall on 12 acres of the Drawe family’s land, for which it has agreed to pay $42,000. But this will cut the Drawes off from 350 of their 525 acres that will lie between the wall and the Rio Grande River, which marks the international boundary. They are getting $197,000 to cover the lost value to the property the wall will cause.

All these piles of money spent to build a barrier that will not solve our immigration problems.

Pamela Rivas has been in court fighting the government for 11 years, Kanno-Youngs reports. The feds took her to court in 2008 to acquire some of her land at Los Ebanos, Texas, an entry port to Mexico. She refused to agree to payment for the land that’s been in her family since 1890. Construction of the wall there hasn’t started yet, but it could at any moment. Rivas’ son, Michael Maldonado, said maybe elections will make a difference: “The longer that we can endure it, maybe something might change. Maybe a new administration comes in and says, ‘you know, we’re not going to deal with this.’”

For so many Americans and would-be Americans, that particular hope covers a lot more than the border wall.

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