Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has been providing legal advice and representation to private property owners threatened by the border wall who could not otherwise afford a lawyer. The Department of Homeland Security has been trying to browbeat landowners into signing over access to their lands. Even in cases in which a farm or ranch will be sliced in half, and a lack of access to the Rio Grande for irrigation will make farming more expensive or completely untenable, DHS has only offered to pay for the slice of property that the wall sits on. Property owners whose land is entirely behind the wall will receive no compensation, even though the liklihood that anyone will want to buy their property in the future is next to nothing. TRLA has done commendable work on behalf of border residents, and the No Border Wall Coalition commends their efforts.
TRLA released the following press release regarding their efforts to defend private property owners on May 8, 2008:
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – Today the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered that oral arguments on a series of border wall lawsuits will begin the week of July 7.
The issue to be addressed by the Court is whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) violated federal law by condemning land for the border wall before negotiating a price for the property. Represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the largest provider of legal aid in Texas, the landowners are arguing that the government is not following the legal steps required in the condemnation process.
Landowners in the cases on appeal claim that, because the Government failed to offer any money, it cannot sue them for land access. DHS is arguing that it did not offer the landowners any money because it “deemed $0.00 to be a reasonable price” and the courts do not have the power to question the government’s determination of the price’s reasonability.
“If the government’s condemnation power is really that broad, then nobody has the power to make them comply with their own laws,” said TRLA attorney Jerome Wesevich, “The government asserts absolute power in this case and that power can’t be questioned by anyone.”
Landowners involved in the litigation include Baldomero and Hilaria Muñiz of Los Ebanos, Texas. The elderly couple worked as migrant farmworkers and used their earnings to build a house on the border. They raised their five children in the house and now tend goats on their small piece of land to survive. In June 2007 DHS approached Mr. Muñiz and told him that he had to give the Department access to his property or be sued by the federal government.
“This land is their livelihood,” added Wesevich. “Saying that it isn’t worth a penny is insulting.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit case number is 08-40372.
Established in 1970, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA) is a nonprofit organization that provides free civil legal services to low-income and disadvantaged clients in a 68-county service area. TRLA’s mission is to promote the dignity, self-sufficiency, safety and stability of low-income Texas residents by providing high-quality legal assistance and related educational services.
Contact: Jerome Wesevich, Attorney
Cynthia Martinez, Communications Director