- Thomson Reuters
Maria Flores and her siblings have owned a 16-acre property along a bend in the Rio Grande River for so long none of them can remember when their family acquired it.
On January 12, her daughter, Yvette Salinas, received a legal notice from the Department of Homeland Security with a 21-page “Declaration of Taking,” offering Flores $2,900 for 1.2 acres of her property along the river.
“The United States of America is acquiring property along its border with Mexico in order to construct a fence and related improvements designed to secure the border,” the letter said. “The purpose of this letter is to confer about the amount of just compensation in this case.”
“It’s scary when you read it,” Salinas told The Texas Observer. “You feel like you have to sign.”
Flores has the option to refuse the offer, but the government could then seize it, with compensation, through eminent domain.
And the budget proposal submitted by President Donald Trump on Thursday suggests his administration is gearing up for a fight over properties like the Flores family’s.
- Reuters/Rick Wilking
The 2018 budget request submitted by Trump asks for $27.7 billion for the Justice Department, a $1.1 billion decrease over the previous year’s amount. A list of bullet points highlighting the budget’s priorities includes the following:
“Supports the addition of 20 attorneys to pursue Federal efforts to obtain the land and holdings necessary to secure the Southwest border and another 20 attorneys and support staff for immigration litigation assistance.”
That foreshadows “bitter legal fights with landowners from Texas to California over the seizure of private property,” The New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo notes.
Should the federal government come for the Floreses’ property in Texas – which sits near an elbow of the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County, between McAllen and Rio Grande City – it would not be the first time.
- Christopher Woody/Google Maps
They, and others in the area, got a similar notice in 2008 that offered the same $2,900. Their land sits on the river’s floodplain, however, where a US-Mexico treaty prohibits any building.
That restriction, plus the passage of time, ultimately spared their land, as the Obama administration deemphasized wall construction. (The US commission overseeing that treaty dropped its objection to building on the floodplain in 2012.)
Overall, the Trump administration plans to ask for more than $4 billion through 2018 for the wall’s construction. Trump has previously cited $12 billion as the wall’s cost, while a Homeland Security estimate put the total as high as $21.6 billion.
A supplemental spending bill will request $1.5 billion, and the fiscal-year 2018 budget will ask for $2.6 billion, Mick Mulvaney, the chief of the White House Office on Management and Budget, told reporters this week, saying his office had turned Trump’s “policies into numbers.”
Mulvaney said some of the $1.5 billion portion would go toward “pilot cases” in areas along the border where Homeland Security may experiment with different types of border walling.
The OMB director also further distanced the wall’s funding from Trump’s promises that Mexico would pay for it: “It’s coming out of the Treasury,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said the wall-funding proposal would be a “poison pill” that might cause a government shutdown, according to Politico.
Politico also obtained audio of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado criticizing the idea for the wall in remarks to constituents this week.
Robert Cameron, who runs Texas Border Tours in the Rio Grande Valley area, told CNN in February that he supported Trump and the idea to build a wall, even though he disputed the picture of insecurity many had painted about the border area and didn’t want to see friends and relatives who were living in the country illegally get deported.
But Cameron was skeptical about how effective the wall would be.
He recalled President George W. Bush’s border-fence construction efforts in the mid-2000s, when construction created a no-man’s land between the fence and the river, and gaps in the barrier were left to allow property owners access to their land south of the fence.
- Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
“This is definitely not secure,” Cameron told CNN earlier this year, driving along portions of the fence already built along the border. “I don’t know how that impenetrable wall is going to be built. People need access to their land.”
Others living in the border area in eastern Texas had doubts about the efficacy of the proposed wall – members of the Flores family among them.
“Even if they build a wall, people will still come,” Aleida Garcia, Salinas’ cousin, told The Texas Observer. “What’s helped us tremendously and is less expensive is the technology – the aerostat balloons, the ground sensors, and even boots on the ground.”
Trump has called for hiring thousands more border-patrol and immigration officers, but Customs and Border Protection has said it would take years, and the lower hiring standards needed to meet Trump’s quota may lead to abuses and corruption.
“We don’t want this wall – the town is pretty much united on that,” Salinas told The Texas Observer. “But we don’t want to get sued by the US government either.”