Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar said the Trump administration is gearing up for a fight over taking private land needed to build the president’s border wall — and Texas is likely to be ground zero. This week, the Observer was the first to report that some landowners have already received condemnation notices they have vowed to resist. And in the proposed White House budget released Thursday, the Trump administration is asking for funding to hire 20 additional Department of Justice attorneys to pursue condemnations.
Cuellar, whose district covers nearly 180 miles of the Texas border, said the money would be better spent on the clogged court system. “Judges at the border have some of the highest caseloads in the country,” Cuellar said. “We should be helping them reduce their cases — many of which are criminal cases by the way — and not back things up more with all of these eminent domain cases.”
The Bush and Obama administrations both pursued a 14-mile segment of border fencing between Roma and Los Ebanos in the Rio Grande Valley. But because much of the stretch lies in a floodplain, the fencing was never built. A treaty with Mexico prohibits the building of structures in the floodplain, though the U.S. portion of the agency that oversees the treaty has waived that prohibition.
But since Trump’s election, landowners with property along the 14-mile stretch of border have begun to receive fresh condemnation notices for their land. As the Observer reported this week, Yvette Salinas said her family received notice on January 12, a week before Trump’s inauguration. The timing of the letter has confused some, but Cuellar said it may stem from activity during the transition.
In December, Trump’s transition team was already asking Border Patrol sector chiefs where the wall could be constructed, Cuellar said.
“The Laredo Border Patrol sector chief sent a message back to DHS saying, ‘We don’t need any fencing here,’” Cuellar said. “But the message that came back from headquarters was that Trump’s team wants this information.”
Cuellar said he called a meeting a week ago with the Laredo Border Patrol sector chief Mario Martinez, the Zapata County judge and other local officials to go through possible locations within his congressional district for infrastructure.
“Everything is on the table from technology, more personnel and, in some places, infrastructure,” Cuellar said. He said they would meet again in about three weeks.
The White House budget calls for $2.6 billion to build the wall, though the cost is estimated at $21.6 billion for a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
The idea that the entire southern border will have a wall is unrealistic, said Cuellar. “I know he made a campaign promise that he’s going to build a ‘beautiful wall’ but with the whole 1,954 miles of southern border with a wall — it’s not going to happen. There are mountains, cliffs and a river. It’s going to be nearly impossible to get it done.”
Cuellar said people in Starr County, which is in his district, don’t want a border wall. “They don’t want a fence down here,” he said. “I can tell you this is going to start legal fights and the courtrooms are already overloaded.”
Noel Benavides, a former Roma city councilperson, said he received a condemnation notice about two weeks ago for 5.8 acres of his land. He has been fighting condemnation since the Secure Fence Act was passed a decade ago. Benavides and his wife own 155 acres of an original Spanish land grant deeded to their family in 1767 by the King of Spain. Benavides said that he and others in Roma are deadset against a border wall in their backyard. “Once the land is destroyed, it will never be the same,” he said. “We have oaks and mesquite that have been there for generations, foxes and other animals and an ecosystem that has been untouched.”
For the last several years, Benavides said he simply dealt with the looming land condemnation by ignoring the letters from the U.S. government. But recently he went out and hired a lawyer. “It’s been 10 years and I’m getting older,” he said. “And I don’t want this to be a burden for my children.”