Exclusive: Trump Ramps Up Border Wall Land Grabs Amid Pandemic Lockdowns
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the border wall is moving ahead — regardless of the virus.
By Nick Fouriezos
Last month, as President Donald Trump told millions of Americans to stay home in response to the coronavirus, lawyers on the Texas border began noticing a strange trend — a sharp spike in the number of eminent domain cases being sent to the courts.
In just over three months in 2020, the Trump administration has already filed at least 26 new cases in its efforts to acquire land in Texas to build his long-promised Mexico border wall. That’s roughly a third of the 77 total cases issued in the entirety of Trump’s tenure in office, according to data compiled by the Texas Civil Rights Project. Since the start of March, the federal government has filed 16 new cases — encompassing more than 1,000 acres of land — even as Trump was announcing social distancing guidelines and governments shut down many nonessential services.
They are trying to take advantage of the pandemic.
Ricky Garza, Texas Civil Rights Project
That’s sparking concerns among critics of the wall that the Trump administration might be using the nationwide scare of the coronavirus to push through an agenda that might otherwise have faced far greater resistance. Many defendants are going unrepresented in courts, say lawyers.
“They are trying to take advantage of the pandemic, when lawyers are not going to be as willing to take cases and many people are sheltering in places,” says Ricky Garza, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, whose lawyers are fighting some of the administration’s eminent domain cases in court. Meanwhile, property owners whose land Uncle Sam is seizing are having to decide whether to show up in court and risk contracting the virus or not coming and waiving many of their legal rights. “They are asking our clients to make an impossible choice: between their health and defending their homes,” Garza says.
Not all judges have played ball so far: Garza noted that hearings in some cases have been rescheduled for the summer with hopes of being able to conduct them over phone or in-person by then.
But judges are being forced to take that call on whether to defer hearings on more land cases than ever before since Trump came to power. No previous period of a similar length since January 2017 has seen 23 eminent domain cases filed by the federal government.
For many conservatives, eminent domain is a dicey political issue, but criticism from his own party has remained muted as Trump pushes forward to get the wall built. Requests for comment made to Border Patrol, and the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington and McAllen, Texas, were not immediately returned. However, Trump administration officials have defended the overall push against immigration as the coronavirus pandemic rages, saying that the border wall construction is “essential business.” On March 12, Trump tweeted: “We need the Wall more than ever” in response to a follower’s comments suggesting the health scare called for stronger borders.
On April 15, the Department of Homeland Security issued a waiver forgoing federal laws to fast-track construction of 15 miles of new border walls across the Rio Grande Valley. And in New Mexico and Arizona — where eminent domain concerns are less common because nearly all borderland is already federally owned — more than 150 miles of approved border wall construction was announced in the days immediately following Trump’s March 16 coronavirus address.
“Essentially the whole state is under a stay-at-home order, but there are hundreds and hundreds of construction workers building the wall,” says Laiken Jordahl, who works at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, which has opposed the border wall for environmental reasons. “They are staying in remote border towns … oftentimes places that don’t even have a hospital, in communities that are not suited to care for a ton of people.”
The decision to push forward has come as the administration has stepped up efforts to enforce stricter immigration policies across departments. Trump invoked emergency powers in early April, to allow Border Patrol agents to suspend laws protecting asylum-seekers and minors — allowing them to send migrants back to Mexico almost immediately.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the refugee office managing custody of thousands of migrant children, has advanced policies favored by immigration hawk and White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller. Those policies include delaying placing children in safer shelters or homes and fingerprinting all adults in households that take them in.
And the actual number of properties involved in the eminent domain cases might be more than what we’re seeing on paper. That’s because, beginning in November, the Trump administration began lumping multiple properties together in its filings.
One case in March includes the entire city of Laredo as a defendant; other cases can have as many as 30 relatives involved on properties where land is passed down generationally. “It shows they may be getting desperate, trying to combine these properties to move more quickly,” Garza says. “This may just be the tip of the iceberg.”