U.S. President Donald Trump is hell-bent on building his border wall. And, politically, he really does not have a choice.
This promise, first made when Trump announced his campaign almost two years ago, was one of the main reasons why he found himself catapulted into the White House. But just as the George W. Bush administration found when it started building a border fence a decade ago, the process will be complicated.
Federal officials will have to deal with county and local governments, along with hundreds of American landowners who occupy the border — which spans 1,945 miles between Texas and Mexico alone. As a Bloomberg report highlighted last month, Bush’s efforts did not win him too many friends in his home state of Texas.
But Trump’s White House is far more focused, as shown in a January executive order that sought to neutralize the “transnational criminal organizations” and those who “seek to harm Americans through acts of terror.” But standing in Trump’s way are landowners who are determined to hold onto their property or, at the very least maintain, access to it. As an NPR investigation revealed last month, many of the land acquisition court cases filed during the Bush administration remain unresolved.
Now, the evidence suggests that the Trump administration will resort to land-grab tactics such as eminent domain if necessary.
As the Austin-based investigative news publication the Texas Observer reported this week, residents and land owners are continuing to receive notices from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stating that the agency wants to condemn land in order to move forward on the border wall.
One family, to which the federal government offered $2,900 a decade ago for 1.2 acres near the Rio Grande, received another notice in January. As the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque reported, the Salinas do not want to give up the land that has been with them for generations, but they also do not have the resources to put up a years-long fight in the court system.
But multiply the Salinas family of the tiny town of Los Ebanos by hundreds, if not thousands of cases, and the feds will have a long struggle ahead to get the land they want. And according to law professor Gerald S. Dickinson, securing the land will be even tougher than fighting if the administration decides to file eminent domain cases.
Not that eminent domain is new to Donald Trump, who has capitalized on the costly and litigious procedure for years – including the famous case against an Atlantic City widow who fought Trump in court and eventually won. As the conservative National Review wrote in 2011, when Trump briefly considered a challenge to Barack Obama’s reelection, the then-hotel and casino magnate said he “has a track record of using the government as a hired thug to take other people’s property.” Last year, Randal John Meyer of the libertarian Cato Institute was equally scathing: “He’d need to steal private property Americans” in order to build this wall.
Of course, the federal government cannot simply take the land. As enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, the government would have to provide “just compensation” to landowners. But a definition of fair compensation will not be an easy for landowners and government agencies to settle, which could help drive up the wall’s costs – if not for land purchases, then litigation. Nevertheless, Bloomberg reports that DHS has opened up bids for the wall’s design and construction, and despite Trump’s past promises that Mexico will “pay for it,” the administration is asking for as much as $6.6 billion in the next federal budget to serve as a down payment on the project.
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