South Texas Land and Residents Become Ground Zero for Border Wall Struggles
By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
On April 12, a draft report that detailed the Trump administration’s immigration control efforts indicated the U.S. government’s highest priority for a southern border wall is a 34-mile-long area in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV).
While the report has not yet been approved by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leadership, DHS has received permission from Congress to reprogram $20 million in its current budget to build “prototypes” — short segments that contractors offer as their versions of what the new wall should look like. Despite signals that construction plans of at least small portions of the border wall are moving forward, DHS still has to contend with Texas property owners who will not concede to eminent domain claims so easily.
Fencing on the Texas-Mexico Border
Relative to the border states of California and Arizona, only a few small portions of the Texas-Mexico border have border fencing. This is partly due to natural land barriers—particularly in the rural and mountainous parts of the Big Bend area—and environmentally sensitive areas like the Rio Grande Valley. However, what many border wall expansion proponents don’t know or understand is that the majority of border land in Texas is privately owned. This means that the U.S. government has to go through a costly and often time-consuming eminent domain process to secure land for fence expansion.
This process has been controversial since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 called for the construction of 700 miles of double-reinforced border fence in designated high-threat and high-traffic areas. On many occasions, border residents—many of whom spoke little English—were not knowledgeable about the process or their rights, and ended up signing away valuable land for pennies on the dollar. In other situations, residents were able to join together and hire lawyers to secure fair deals. However, A CNN analysis of lawsuits filed the last time the government seized land to build a border fence in 2006 found that property owners who fought to keep their land always lost, and that the government often offered them thousands of dollars less than the land was worth.
Plans for South Texas Construction
Texas residents are now preparing for what they anticipate will be a long and vicious fight. In late April, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) announced a plan to work with any border landowner to make sure they are adequately represented in court. Many of the lawsuits examined by CNN were brought by TCRP attorneys, and they anticipate the pool of border residents potentially affected by the actions outlined in the draft plan will grow. TCRP attorney Emma Hilbert told the San Antonio Current, “The border fence is already an effective dam. Sticks and leaves get caught in it, and eventually it starts flooding,” which would affect more people than just those living right on the border.
While the plan is still in draft form, money is already being allocated by Congress and plans for construction in South Texas are already being made. However, it is still impossible to predict how quickly (or slowly) progress will be made given the likely legal challenges that will arise, and how the political landscape may change with midterm elections in 2018.