Above: The first panels of levee border wall are seen at a construction site along the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna in November. The new section, with 18-foot tall steel bollards atop a concrete wall, will stretch approximately 8 miles.
2020 could be the year that Trump’s border wall finally rises or falls.
After nearly three years in office, Donald Trump is months behind schedule on his signature campaign promise—and he’s fending off criticism from both the right and left about his sluggish progress. To date, Trump has completed only 80-some miles of border fencing, nearly all of which replaced smaller existing barriers in California and the Southwest. In Texas, he’s only managed to replace a few miles of fence in El Paso, break ground on a couple tiny stretches of new wall in the Rio Grande Valley, and clear some federal wildlife refuge land.
If this were a Manhattan real estate deal, Trump presumably would have fired the guy in charge. But as reelection looms, the president is putting his foot on the gas in two deeply Trumpian ways: trying to steer contracts to a construction executive who’d repeatedy appeared on Fox News, and putting his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the project. Trump and Kushner’s goal is to build about 500 miles before the election. For them, the stakes are purely political; for Texas fronterizos, they’re all too real.
In early December, the Justice Department started condemning Texans’ private property in the border county of Hidalgo, east of the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. The feds had begun battling dozens of Texas landowners months earlier over the right to survey their properties, but a December 6 lawsuit was the first actual condemnation. Condemnation suits are likely to ramp up throughout the Valley and the Laredo area in the coming months, as the administration aims to build more than 160 miles of fencing on private property in the Lone Star State.
Property owners in Texas can slow Trump down by refusing to willingly sell their land. But, ultimately, they can’t beat the government—a fact left out of much of the national press coverage. Thanks to the feds’ special eminent domain authority—sometimes referred to as “quick take”—the government can seize land, build the wall, and worry about the price later. That’s what happened a decade ago, when the Bush and Obama administrations built 110 miles of the wall in Texas. Though yearslong lawsuits over compensation might have been a pain in the ass for Justice Department lawyers, the wall had already been built.
At this point, it seems only incompetence would stop Trump from building a significant amount of new border fencing in Texas. The easiest way to stymie the wall is to simply not fund it, which congressional Democrats have decided against over and over. Between 2018 and 2019, Democrats including Beto O’Rourke and Henry Cuellar approved about $2 billion for new fencing in the Valley. Trump then helped himself through unilateral executive authority to another $6.7 billion pilfered from other federal agencies (though some of that money is currently blocked by federal courts). Last month—over the protests of Hispanic and progressive legislators—the Democratic House approved another $1.4 billion and declined to try blocking the president from mugging other federal departments in the future.
As 2020 wears on, Trump and Democratic candidates will spar over how successful Trump’s long-promised barrier project has been. You’re likely to hear babble about how many miles of new, rather than replacement, wall the president has built, or whether he’s building a “fence” or a “wall.” You might also hear liberal taunts about Mexico not paying for the wall. These are inane debates. For Texans along the border, what matters are the properties, often handed down for generations, that will be bisected by the wall, and the damage to ecosystems that will result.
Most likely, the question now is simply how much damage Trump will do before Democrats, potentially, retake the White House.
If the Dems do prevail, anti-wall activists may have to push the new president to break with past practice: Barack Obama graciously finished George W. Bush’s wall for him, continuing construction as late as 2011. Progressives could also consider a Berlin solution, a mass teardown of the hundreds of miles of wall that divide us from our neighbor to the south. But if past is prologue, most Democrats will have to be pushed every inch of the way.