In order to build the border wall, the federal government has brought condemnation lawsuits against more than 400 landowners along the Rio Grande. This land has long been prized because of its rich soil and the year-round availability of water. Indeed, many families along the river still hold title to lands that were granted to their forefathers by the King of Spain as early as the 1760's, decades before the United States and Mexico became sovereign nations, and more than a century before the Rio Grande became their shared border. But now homeowners, farmers, municipalities, as well as privately-owned nature preserves have been forced to give up their property to the federal government, so that it can erect a patchwork of border walls that the Border Patrol describes as nothing more than a "speed bump."
In the low-lying river delta of South Texas, flood-control levees parallel the Rio Grande. A treaty with Mexico forbids the construction of walls or fences between these levees and the river, because a structure immediately adjacent to the river could deflect floodwaters and shift the river's course, resulting in flooding and a change in the location of the international boundary. So, to comply with the treaty, the border wall is being built into, on, or north of the levees. These are located up to two miles from the Rio Grande, leaving thousands of acres of U.S. territory, much of it privately owned, behind the border wall.
Eloisa Tamez' property has been in her family since the King of Spain issued the San Pedro Carracitos Land Grant in 1763. In 2007 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) demanded access to her land for border wall surveys, then initiated condemnation proceedings. Dr. Tamez enlisted the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and initiated a class-action lawsuit, alleging that DHS had refused to negotiate with landowners before condemning their property, as required by law. She also demanded that DHS reveal its criteria for siting the border wall, which in places runs for miles through poor and/or minority communities, then ends abruptly at the property line of an exclusive golf resort. On April 15, 2009 a federal judge ruled against Dr. Tamez, allowing the federal government to seize her land, but requiring that DHS consult with her regarding access to her walled-off property. Ignoring the judge's order DHS immediately began construction without first consulting with Dr. Tamez, and within a week the border wall bisecting her property was finished.
This indifference to property rights and court rulings on the part of DHS was not an isolated occurrence. In February 2009, Eva Lambert awoke to the sound of heavy equipment erecting the border wall's steel posts on her land. In her case, either through disregard for the law or gross incompetence, DHS finished construction of the wall before anyone had contacted her to negotiate a price or condemn her property. Denied her day in court as well as her property, Ms. Lambert told the Brownsville Herald, In the end, the government does what it wants."
When it has taken land, the Department of Homeland Security has only offered to pay for the exact footprint of the border wall (typically a 60-foot wide strip) as it passes through a given parcel of land. In their simplistic calculations, the agency has completely ignored issues such as the devaluation of contiguous property, problems accessing land and homes behind the wall, impacts on livelihood, and the importance of cultural heritage. Despite the range and complexity of these issues, DHS has steadfastly refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with property owners.
Leonard Loop was born 72 years ago on land farmed by his father and grandfather. He lives alongside his children and grandchildren on the land, which is now a productive citrus orchard. The border wall slices the Loop property in half. To build it, more than 70 mature grapefruit trees were bulldozed. Like other landowners, the Loops were given no opportunity for input into what would be built on their land, or whether there would be gates to accommodate their equipment and operations. Leonard's son lives in a house that is now behind the wall, and his granddaughter will have to pass through it every day to get to the school bus stop, assuming the Border Patrol decides to leave the gate unlocked. DHS has sued the Loops three times, so far, to condemn different portions of their orchard. The most recent condemnation was for the driveway to their home.
The Nature Conservancy's Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve maintains one of the last remaining Sabal Palm forests along the banks of the Rio Grande. The border wall will bisect the preserve, cutting off more than 700 acres along with an equipment barn, office, and caretaker's residence. The property was purchased in 1999 for $2.6 million, but DHS has only offered to pay $114,000 for the wall's footprint, a strip of land 60 feet wide and 6,000 feet long. DHS claims that gates will be built, but they won't say who will get keys or under what circumstances Conservancy staff will be able to access the property.
Other homes, businesses, and properties that are behind the levees will be walled off entirely, trapped between the border wall and the Rio Grande. DHS has refused to grant any compensation whatsoever for properties left on the "Mexican" side of the wall. Indeed, because DHS is focused solely on the wall's exact footprint, they have failed to even make contact with some of the landowners whose property is behind the wall.
The Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary preserves another 557 acres of Sabal Palm forest, all of which will be behind the border wall. Because the wall will be built a few feet to the north of their property line, DHS has not offered Audubon any compensation whatsoever. Anne Brown, executive director of Audubon Texas, said, "One of our huge frustrations has been lack of consultation and lack of any formal process to voice our concerns. That affects how we do our planning and budgeting. From what we've heard, we'll have to close." True to her prediction, in April of 2009 the Sabal Palm Audubon Center was closed to the public.
The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed that they have consulted with landowners and local officials regarding border wall construction. But when the Texas Border Coalition invited DHS and Customs and Border Protection officials to "walk the line" and see the impacts that the border wall will have on specific communities, they responded that they would only do so if the owners of the property that they would be crossing were kept away. Apparently, their preferred method of consultation is a condemnation proceeding.
In July 2008, following Secretary Chertoff's use of the Real ID Act to waive laws such as the Farmland Protection Policy Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Department of Homeland Security prepared Environmental Stewardship Plans (ESPs) for the border walls that it planned to erect. With no laws in place to dictate standards for the documents, DHS was free to say anything, no matter how ridiculous, to justify the border wall. In the ESP for Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where many of the land condemnations have occurred, DHS predicted that the border wall's "effects upon the Nation's health and economy, drug-related crimes, community cohesion, property values, and traditional family values will be long-term and beneficial, both nationally and locally."
Setting aside the impossibility of scientifically defining or quantifying "traditional family values," it is difficult to imagine that condemning land that has been part of a family's heritage for generations will prove beneficial to those families. The impact on property values is easier to quantify. The erection of a border wall that cuts off homes or productive farmland destroys their value. No one will buy them, and no bank will accept them as collateral for a loan. Rather than working farms and vibrant communities that extend to the river bank, the Department of Homeland Security is creating a literal no-man's land by potentially bankrupting private property owners and pushing them off of their land.