Trump administration 'doubled down on' converting private land for border wall amid coronavirus pandemic
The struggle for President Trump's border wall is still raging in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The government has continued its attempts to seize land from landowners along the US-Mexico border, using a significant domain, citing national security risks. This is the government’s authority to convert privately owned land to federal land for compensation to landowners.
"Since March, the government has filed 24 new convictions to try to take over private ownership from landowners in southern Texas," said Efren Olivares, legal director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program for the Texas Civil Rights Project, recently on Yahoo Finance's The Ticker (video above). "That's more than the past eight months, so we've definitely seen an increase in efforts since the pandemic started."
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Border Guard Anthony Garcia stands for a portrait along the U.S. border with Mexico, where the new border wall will replace the old fence in Calexico, CA. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Oliveres added that the Texas Civil Rights Project is "alarmed ... that the government has doubled its efforts to continue building border walls despite the pandemic. In fact, in conviction cases, we have clients who live on the property on which the government wants to build a border wall. And while they are trying to seek shelter at home, we have a customer who is 75 years old. And the government is trying to send surveying engineers and construction teams to his home as part of this effort to continue building. "
"One of the most formidable powers in the government"
According to data provided by US Finance and Border Protection (CBP) to Yahoo Finance, there are currently 657 miles of "primary barriers" and approximately 50 miles of "secondary barriers" along the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border. The vast majority of these barriers were established before Trump's presidency began.
President Trump has stated that a border wall is needed to protect Americans from illegal immigration. And during a rally in February, he called the corona virus another justification for his wall, saying, "We have to understand that border security is also health security."
There are currently 657 miles of primary barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Graphic: David Foster / Yahoo Finance)
The President declared a state of emergency in February 2019 to receive funding for the "Wall" and this arrangement was extended for another year in February 2020 with the goal of building 400 miles by the end of 2020. According to the New York Times, "While Mr. Trump built less than 200 of these miles, his government has filed 78 lawsuits against border landowners, 30 of them this year."
However, much of the land needed to complete the project belongs to American citizens. The government has used an important domain to try to preserve privately owned land.
Robert McNamara, a senior lawyer at the Institute of Justice, described the outstanding domain as "one of the most formidable powers of the government."
"It should be used rarely, cautiously, and with great concern for the impact on innocent property owners who are victims," McNamara told Yahoo Finance. "And unfortunately, often none of these things is true."
United States President Donald Trump visits the U.S.-Mexico border wall on April 5, 2019 in Calexico, California. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images)
"It is absurd"
Once a landowner is notified by the federal government, they usually have 21 days to respond.
Olivares emphasized that while landowners are "a long and complicated process", landowners still have rights even if they receive important domain notifications. And because there are no Miranda rights in these proceedings, many do not know that they can say no.
"Some landowners may want that, and that's their right," he said. "But if you don't agree, you're not obliged to sell your property."
View of the Mexico U.S. Wall on June 18, 2019 in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. (Photo by AGUSTIN PAULLIER / AFP / Getty Images)
If a landowner refuses to surrender their property to the federal government, the government must demonstrate three things: that they have the authority to take over the land, that it is used for a public purpose, and that it pays the property at fair market value. However, the value aspect is where many landowners often feel undercut.
"We see that the government is really undervaluing the property and insists on paying only $ 100 for up to 18 months of access to the property for surveying and other preparatory work," said Olivares. "It is absurd."
On August 22, 2018, Norma Anzaldua and her family are in Mission, Texas, watching the Rio Grande on their family's land. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
"Sentenced on Thanksgiving and Christmas"
McNamara said he was "not at all surprised" by the move to pursue land seizures amid the pandemic.
"I've seen property owners convicted of Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said. "Too often, when the government takes private property over a significant domain, it acts with ruthless disregard for the owners and their individual circumstances, and I have unfortunately lost the ability to be surprised."
Olivares noted that not all of the land the government wants to build on is right on the Rio Grande - part of it extends up to a mile north of the river.
Leonel Calderon stands next to the Rio Grande, which marks the border between the United States and Mexico, as he flows past the back yard of his home in Del Rio, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
"In Stark County in particular, the proposed path leads through significant residential areas," said Olivares. "We're talking about dozens of landowners, including an orphanage and a nursing home in Stark County, who are at risk of being destroyed by this border wall."
Olivares and his organization are trying to argue for their customers that attempts by the federal government to preserve their land are not an urgent matter in the face of this pandemic: “Land owners should be allowed to seek shelter at home so as not to deal with it dozens of construction workers on their property without protective equipment, without a mask or gloves. "
Olivares added that "the decisions on these applications are still pending".
Adriana is a reporter and political and health policy editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.
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