Trump admin preparing to take over private land in Texas for border wall

The Trump administration is preparing court filings to begin taking over private land in Texas to build a border wall as early as this week, say officials.
Image: Pentagon-Funded Border Wall Construction
Government contractors erect a section of Pentagon-funded border wall along the Colorado River, in Yuma, Ariz. on Sept. 10, 2019Matt York / AP

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By Courtney Kube and Julia Ainsley

The Trump administration is preparing court filings to begin taking over private land to build its long-promised border wall as early as this week — without confirming how much it will pay landowners first, according to two officials familiar with the process.

Jared Kushner is hosting a meeting with military and administration officials at the White House this Friday, where they are expected to discuss the U.S. government taking over private land to build more sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, said two officials.

The commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, is expected to attend, as are two assistant defense secretaries for homeland defense, Kenneth Rapuano and Robert Salesses.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice and Department of Defense have prepared letters of rights of entry, informing property owners that government officials will be entering their land to assess the property, test the soil and conduct land surveys, said two officials.

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In a typical eminent domain case, the government agrees on an amount of money before it seizes the land. In the past, the government has paid landowners along the Texas-Mexico border $100 for 18 months of unfettered, unannounced access, according to Ricky Garza, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Garza's group represents five Texas landowners whose property is in the path of the planned wall and who oppose its construction.

According to two officials familiar with the process, however, government attorneys may file under the Declaration of Taking Act in federal court in Texas, which could expedite the process for the government purchase of private land along the border.

If the government files under that law, and its action survives expected legal challenges, the title would automatically transfer to the government. The government has to name the price it expects to pay, but actual negotiations with the landowners about the price don't begin until after the land is taken.

The Declaration of Taking Act is meant to be reserved for emergencies. Earlier this year the Trump administration declared the situation at the border a national emergency. A federal judge ruled in October that President Donald Trump violated federal law when he used his declaration of a national emergency to pull millions from military funding for building the wall. The ruling did not apply to other sources of funds, however.

"They are probably going to get [the land] in the end, but they are asking the court to dispense with the process that is typically afforded to landowners," said Garza, attorney for the landowners. "We want to make sure that all of our clients are treated with basic human decency and with respect that's been sorely lacking in the past by this administration."

Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a DOD spokesperson, said, "The Department of Defense is considering its options in close consultation with the Department of Justice."

The White House and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan told reporters on Thursday that land acquisition for the border wall was "a challenge," but said, "I still think we're on track to get the land we need for 450 miles [of new wall]."

Morgan also noted that there had been lawsuits and "a lot of the judicial activism out there, and land acquisition is not going to be immune from that as well."

Asked how much new wall had been constructed during the Trump administration, Morgan said, "Every mile of wall that's being built is a new mile of wall." Asked how much wall had been built where none existed before, Morgan said the administration had just broken ground in the Rio Grande Valley.

Garza said there are hundreds if not close to one thousand landowners in Texas who own land in the path of plans for a border wall. The winding Texas border with Mexico is more than 1,200 miles long. Garza added that in Texas, unlike other border states, the majority of the land along the border is private, and has been passed down through families for generations.