The Trump administration acquired at least 135 tracts of private land to build barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and planned to seize a total of 5,275 acres to fulfill President Trump’s campaign pledge, according to a government watchdog report obtained by CBS News.
A study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ independent investigative arm, found that the Trump administration had secured the 135 sections of private land along the southern border as of July by reaching agreements with the owners or taking them to court and seizing their property. Officials planned to acquire another 991 tracts, most of them in south Texas, according to the report.
Between January 2017 and August 2020, the Justice Department filed 109 lawsuits against landowners to access their property or seize it permanently, GAO said. The owners of the 285 acres that the government has taken outright without an agreement have been offered between $1,440 and $870,261 per acre in compensation.
Trump administration lawyers were preparing to file another 100 lawsuits against landowners to permanently acquire their property along the southern border, according to the report.
Senate Democrats, who requested the review last year, criticized the land grabs. “As Congress’s independent watchdog confirms, this administration is still actively seizing the private land of farmers and ranchers to build Trump’s wasteful, divisive border wall,” Senators Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said in a statement to CBS News.
“In anticipation of President-elect Biden’s administration, we call on the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to immediately stop any efforts to take private land away from farmers and ranchers against their will and to return to our men and women serving in the military all money stolen to fund this shameful project without delay,” the Democratic senators added.
The GAO report offers the most detailed look yet at concerted U.S. government efforts to take control of privately owned land to erect Mr. Trump’s long-promised border wall, which has become one of the most expensive federal construction projects in American history. The Trump administration has allocated more than $15 billion in funding for the project, primarily relying on diverted military funds since Congress has only authorized $4.5 billion for border barrier construction in the past four years.
As of November 13, the Trump administration had built 402 miles of new border barriers, most of which have replaced dilapidated and low barricades, according to figures compiled by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Most of the construction has taken place in California, Arizona and New Mexico since much of the land there was already under government control. However, in south Texas, where unauthorized border crossings have historically been the highest, the government’s efforts have been much slower as ranches, farms and other private lands have stood in the way.
The administration has sought to acquire this land by purchasing it from the owners. Government officials survey properties and subsequently offer landowners compensation that is supposed to be based on fair market value.
But if no agreement is reached — because owners refuse to give up their lands, they lack the necessary documents to show ownership or no owners are located — the Trump administration has been invoking “eminent domain,” a power the government has to seize private property for public use.
The process requires that the landowners eventually receive compensation, but the government immediately assumes legal authority over the property after filing a declaration in federal court. The court then sets a deadline for the owners to surrender their lands.
According to the GAO report, the seizure of private land in south Texas has taken between 21 and 30 months, compared to the one-year average for other regions. The process has been slowed by missing or incomplete land records, as well as logistical challenges like the relocation of utilities and the interruption of cattle fencing and irrigation pipelines.
Another factor that has encumbered the acquisition of private property in south Texas is opposition from local landowners. The GAO report details landowner concerns about the location of gates, their ability to maintain oil and gas pipelines, the diminished value of property split by the border wall and the safety of farm crews working south of the barriers.
The fact that one tract of land is sometimes owned by multiple individuals has also delayed land grabs. In one case, 8 of 87 owners of six acres of land in Hidalgo County opposed having their property taken. For a 7.6-mile project in the Rio Grande Valley, the government determined it would have to invoke eminent domain to secure more than half of the required property due to opposition from landowners.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to bring border barrier construction to a halt and to terminate the national emergency declaration Mr. Trump has used to divert billions in military funds. “There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration,” he told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro in August.
Mr. Biden said his administration would stop seizing private property and withdraw lawsuits against landowners. “We are not going to confiscate the land,” he said.
A spokesperson for Mr. Biden’s transition team did not confirm that the incoming administration intends to end eminent domain lawsuits against landowners at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, the spokesperson reiterated Mr. Biden’s other pledges, including his vow to stop the use of Pentagon funding for border barrier construction.