Trump’s Wall Faces a Barrier in Texas: Landowner Lawsuits

Ron Nixon, NY Times, May 7, 2017

One of the principal barriers to President Trump’s border wall begins in Aleida Garcia’s expansive backyard.

She and her husband have built a small park alongside some scrubland on their 30 acres, and they enjoy a panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley. They say they will fiercely resist any effort by the federal government to take over their property, the continuation of a fight that began a decade ago.

And they are not alone. More than 90 lawsuits involving landowners opposing the federal seizure of their property in South Texas remain open from 2008. The property owners have the support of many Texas politicians in a state where land ownership has an almost mythic resonance, and their opposition to a border wall could delay any construction by years while lawsuits wind through the court system.

Mr. Trump and John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, have said they can build a wall in 24 months, even though Congress did not include any funding for construction in its latest spending bill. Fresh legal challenges, along with the existing ones, make that timetable highly unlikely.

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“Here in Texas, we take the concept of private property very seriously,” said Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes nearly 300 miles of the border with Mexico. “We take pride in our land, which has often been passed down for generations. And Texans stand up for ourselves when the federal government tries to take what is ours.”

Ms. Garcia’s case shows how difficult seizing private land can be. Nearly a decade ago, officials from the Department of Homeland Security tried to take parts of her land in order to build a border wall. Ms. Garcia fought back in court, and this year the government decided that it didn’t need her property after all.

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Mr. Trump’s proposed wall would run through a vast swath of the Rio Grande Valley. In March, the Homeland Security Department issued a request for proposals to build a “physically imposing” wall on the border with Mexico. More than 100 vendors have submitted proposals, and department officials say they may notify winning contractors as early as next week.

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In addition, Mr. Trump wants to hire 20 lawyers to obtain land in the Southwest on which a wall or other security facilities can be built.

The Rio Grande Valley is among the busiest smuggling routes on the Mexican border. Last year, Border Patrol agents seized 326,393 pounds of marijuana, second only to the agency’s Tucson sector. It also seized about 1,460 pounds of cocaine, the most of any sector. Nearly 187,000 illegal border crossers were apprehended here in 2016, the most of any Border Patrol sector.

In documents presented to Congress, the Border Patrol has identified the Rio Grande Valley as a priority for new border fencing.

While the government has been able to persuade some landowners to give up land for barriers and walls, many of them balked, forcing the government into court to contest what landowners considered to be the unjust taking of their property. Over 300 condemnation cases went to court, records show. In total, the government spent at least $78 million to acquire land where fencing is now in place, according to congressional documents.

Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Alamo, Tex., said the federal government was likely to face similar opposition if it tried to construct a border wall in the area again.

“The sheer volume of condemnations the government will have to bring will bring significant delays,” said Mr. Olivares, whose organization represents several property owners here.

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