Friday, May 1, 2009

The Border Wall vs. Property Rights: Texas’ Senators Support the Wrong Side

by Scott Nicol

To build the border wall the federal government has brought condemnation lawsuits against more than 300 Texas landowners. Homeowners, farmers, nature preserves, and municipalities all face the imminent loss of their property for a patchwork of walls that have “no discernible impact” on the overall numbers of immigrants or smugglers who cross the border, according to the Congressional Research Service. The wall is a rhetorical point used by politicians who do not represent border communities to claim that they are working to protect the homeland. For them, the real impact of the border wall is irrelevant; all that matters is the perception among voters who will never actually see it. Members of congress who do represent Texas border residents should be fighting to defend our lands and our homes, literally the homeland that the border wall is supposed to secure. Instead, Texas’ Senators have worked to fund and build the wall that today stands in Hidalgo County and is tearing through Brownsville.

Land nearest the Rio Grande has always been prized because of the rich soil and the year-round availability of water. Many families along its banks still hold title to lands that were granted to their forefathers by the King of Spain as early as the 1740’s, decades before the United States and Mexico became sovereign nations, and more than a century before the Rio Grande became their shared border. For these owners, the land is a priceless piece of their family’s history.

Eloisa Tamez’ property has been in her family since the King of Spain issued the San Pedro Carracitos Land Grant in 1763. In 2007 DHS demanded access to her property for border wall surveys, then initiated condemnation proceedings. Dr. Tamez enlisted the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and initiated a class-action lawsuit alleging that DHS has refused to negotiate with landowners before condemning their property, as the law requires. She also demanded that DHS reveal its criteria for citing the border wall, which in places runs for miles through poor and/or minority communities, then ends abruptly at the property line of wealthy property owners and resort communities. David Pagan of Customs and Border Protection responded, "We do not plan to suspend work on the construction of fence in order to hold a series of additional consultation meetings." On April 15, 2009 the court ruled against Dr. Tamez’, allowing the federal government to seize her land. Within a week the border wall had been built across her property.

Last February Eva Lambert awoke to the sound of heavy equipment erecting the border wall’s steel posts on her land. In her case, either through disregard for the law or incompetence, DHS finished construction of the wall before anyone had contacted her to negotiate a price or condemn her property. Denied her day in court as well as her property, Ms. Lambert is still waiting to find out what compensation will be offered. As she told the Brownsville Herald, "In the end, the government does what it wants."

In the low-lying river delta of South Texas, the treaty that established the Rio Grande as the border prohibits construction between the levee and the river. This is because a structure immediately adjacent to the river could deflect floodwaters and shift the river’s course, resulting in a change in the international boundary. So, to comply with the treaty, the border wall is being built into, on, or behind the flood-control levee that parallels the river rather than immediately adjacent to it. This levee is located up to two miles north of the river, leaving thousands of acres of U.S. territory, much of it privately owned, behind the border wall.

The Department of Homeland Security has offered only to pay for the exact footprint of the border wall (typically, a 60-foot wide strip) as it passes through a parcel of land. In their simplistic calculations, the agency has completely issues such as the devaluation of contiguous property, problems accessing land and homes behind the wall, impacts on livelihood, and the importance of cultural heritage. Despite the range and complexity of these issues, DHS has steadfastly refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with property owners.

The Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve maintains one of the last remaining Sabal Palm forests along the banks of the Rio Grande. The border wall will bisect the preserve, cutting off more than 700 acres along with an equipment barn, office, and caretaker’s residence. The property was purchased in 1999 for $2.6 million, but DHS has only offered to pay $114,000 for the wall’s footprint, a strip of land 60 feet wide and 6,000 feet long. DHS has refused to explain how they will access the property that will be behind the wall. They claim that gates will be built, but they won’t say who will get keys or under what circumstances Conservancy staff will be able to access the property. Like Dr. Tamez, the Nature Conservancy is attempting to use the courts to save their land.

Other homes, businesses, and properties that are behind the levees will be walled off entirely, trapped between the wall and the Rio Grande. DHS has refused to grant any compensation whatsoever for properties left on the “Mexican” side of the wall. Indeed, because DHS is focused solely on the wall’s exact footprint, they have failed to even make contact with some of the landowners with property behind the wall.

The Sabal Palm Audubon Center preserves another 557 acres of Sabal Palm forest, which will also be behind the border wall. Because the wall will be built a few feet to the north of their property line, DHS has not offered Audubon any compensation whatsoever. Both Audubon and the Nature Conservancy have said that restricted access for their employees may force them to cut their operations. There is also the concern that uncertain access for emergency personnel may make it impossible to purchase the insurance that allows busloads of local school children to visit the center. With construction of the border wall imminent, Audubon announced that on May 15, 2009 they will close to the public for at least the next 6 months.

The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed that they have consulted with landowners and local officials regarding border wall construction. But when the Texas Border Coalition repeatedly invited DHS and Customs and Border Protection officials to “walk the line and see the impacts that the border wall will have on specific communities, they responded that they would only do so if the owners of the property that they would be crossing were kept away. Apparently, their preferred method of consultation is a condemnation proceeding.

In the face of these assaults on property rights by the federal government, one would expect Texas’ conservative Senators to stand up for their constituents. Private property and small government are central tenets of both of their stated philosophies. In July of 2007 Senator Cornyn told reporters, "I assure you there will be local consultation. There will not be ... unilateral actions on the part of the Department of Homeland Security without local input."

Senator Hutchison did add an amendment to the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the flexibility to decide where walls should be built, as well as to spare places where walls do not make sense. The Homeland Security Secretary was also required to, “consult with the Secretary of Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, States, local governments, Indian tribes, and property owners in the United States to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce, and quality of life for the communities and residents located near the sites at which such fencing is to be constructed.”

Following howls of outrage from right wing pundits and politicians that she had “gutted” the Secure Fence Act, Hutchison backed away from her amendment. She has yet to confront DHS on its refusal to consult with property owners, as epitomized by its demand that landowners be kept away from any DHS employees who walk the line through their property. So long as she is afraid to fight on behalf of Texas landowners, the amendment that she authored is just more empty words.

Senator Cornyn’s statements assuring that there will be local consultation have also proved to be empty. Like Senator Hutchison, he has made no concrete effort to stand up for border residents. Instead, Cornyn sponsored the “Emergency Border Security Funding Act of 2007” which called for 700 linear miles of border wall and 300 miles of vehicle barriers along the US – Mexico border, and provided $3 billion dollars to build it. Cornyn’s bill went nowhere, but even without it DHS has received $3.1 billion to build the border wall.

On April 2, 2009, the one year anniversary of former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff’s border-wide waiver that swept aside 36 federal laws, both of Texas’ Senators voted to add a motion to the Omnibus Appropriations bill that read, “To provide for a point of order against any appropriations bill that fails [to] fully fund the construction of the Southwest border fence.” The vote fell along party lines and failed, but in voting once again in favor of the border wall Hutchison and Cornyn chose party loyalty over the interests of their constituents.

This should not come as a surprise. When Cornyn looks back at the last election, he will look to the north Dallas suburbs as important to his win, not 540 miles south of Dallas to Brownsville. When Hutchison thinks about her upcoming bid to unseat Governor Perry, she will be counting on votes in Sugarland, not El Paso. Though they claim to represent the entire state, so long as they see border communities as politically irrelevant they will not work on our behalf.

The fact that their neglect is not surprising does not make it acceptable. Our Senators, as well as our U.S. Representatives and our President, were put in office to work for all of us. They can not be allowed to play favorites. When they do we need to speak up.

Some border representatives are working to defend border communities. Representative Grijalva of Arizona has authored HR 2076, The Border Security and Responsibility Act. It would require that the Department of Homeland Security work with border communities and landowners in developing security measures, rather than treat them as the enemy. DHS would also have to obey all of our nation’s laws, instead of sweeping away those which are seen as an inconvenience. Cosponsoring this bill in the House, or introducing a companion in the Senate, would be a concrete demonstration of support for border residents.

With this bill pending and walls under construction, it is critical that our members of Congress hear from their constituents right now. Urge them to support the Border Security and Responsibility Act. Demand that they work to stop further walls from tearing through the borderlands. Though only around 50 miles of border wall remain to be built it is not too late to stop it. If you lived in a home, or owned a farm, or worked at a wildlife refuge that is in the path of one of those miles, you would see every last mile as important.

So long as we sit quietly by and watch the border wall go up, we are irrelevant in the eyes of Congress. If we do not make our voices heard, and make our elected officials listen, mile upon mile of wall will be built. And while we can rail against the politicians who sacrifice our home for political gain, if we are silent we own a portion of the blame.

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