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Landowners Likely To Bring More Lawsuits As Trump Moves On Border Wall

Eloisa Tamez received $56,000 from the federal government for a quarter-acre of her ancestral land, but she says, "I wasn't looking for the money. I don't want to lose the land.
John Burnett
Eloisa Tamez received $56,000 from the federal government for a quarter-acre of her ancestral land, but she says, "I wasn't looking for the money. I don't want to lose the land.

President Trump has promised to build a wall along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

A third of that border already has a barrier, thanks to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed by then-President George W. Bush. That initiative ran into issues with landowners near the Rio Grande. If the wall goes forward as Trump promises, more lawsuits may be coming.

Out on the Western border between the U.S. and Mexico, straight-line fencing cuts through public lands and big ranches. But down in South Texas, the imposing, rust-colored barrier runs into a thicket of private property rights.

Hundreds of irate landowners along the river have protested what they call a government land grab to install the controversial fence. Their cases landed before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville. He calls himself "the fence judge."

President Bush — who appointed Hanen — signed the law ordering the erection of 700 miles of physical barriers along the border.

Unlike the sparser population upriver, the lower Rio Grande Valley is dense with people and history. Some of the acreage goes back to Spanish land grants. To purchase property rights for the construction, Border Patrol had to contact landowners near the serpentine river. Most of them settled out of court, but other cases have gotten into the weeds.

Some landowners want more money. Some want a gate in the fence to be able to access their land on the other side. In other cases, Hanen says government lawyers ran into complex family trees.

"Finding out even who owns the land that's being condemned has been a real problem for the government," he says.

When negotiations fail, the Justice Department sues. In all, 320 eminent domain cases have ended up in Hanen's court. The judge has made national news as an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama's more lenient immigration policies. This is the first interview he has given on the years-long legal morass surrounding the border fence.

"You have to realize these are everyday people living their ordinary life, and all of a sudden the government knocks on their door and says, 'We want your backyard,' " Hanen says. "I mean, all of a sudden they're facing the might of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, and all of a sudden, they're a defendant in a lawsuit through no fault of their own."

The 63-year-old judge grew up in Central Texas, but he knows the border — his daughter was baptized in the Rio Grande.

On several occasions, Hanen even left the courthouse to inspect the contested borderlands firsthand, while his U.S. marshal escort worried about cartel violence just across the river.

One of the properties Hanen walked belongs to Eloisa Tamez, 81, who is perhaps the valley's loudest fence opponent. The 18-foot-tall barricade bisects her 3 acres in the community of Calaboz, which is west of Brownsville.

"In order for me to move around in the rest of my property, that which is south of the wall, I have to insert a code so that this monstrous gate can open and then I can go through," she says.

The iron gateway rolls away, giving Tamez access to the other half of her ancestral property, choked with cactus and mesquite.

Her case — United States of America v. .26 Acres of Land — dragged on in Hanen's court for seven years. She knew how it would end. In federal condemnation cases, whether for dams, highways or national parks, the government almost always wins.

Ultimately, Tamez got a check for $56,000 for the quarter-acre of land under the fence and the inconvenience. Sitting in her office at the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she is a professor of nursing, Tamez is still not satisfied.

"I wasn't looking for the money," she says. "I don't want to lose the land. I want the land back. I don't believe in the barriers."

NPR looked at the more than 300 fence cases in Hanen's court. Two-thirds of them have been resolved. Most of them took about 3 1/2 years, and most were under an acre. The median settlement works out to $12,600. On the high end, the Nature Conservancy got $1.1 million for 8 acres.

But not everybody ended up in court.

An 84-year-old retired schoolteacher named Arnaldo Farias lives next to Tamez. He was happy to accept the government's offer of $8,000, though he says he still hasn't been paid four years later.

Unlike his firebrand neighbor, Farias says he is glad to have the steel barrier running through his backyard. He says it stops unauthorized immigrants from walking across his property and taking showers in his outbuilding.

"I wanted to sell because I wanted security," he says. "You don't know what kind of people are coming. That's the bottom line."

Large federal land acquisition projects typically take years. Today, 91 of the landowner cases in South Texas remain open and even more are expected. When Trump signed his executive order last month calling for his "big beautiful wall," Hanen knew what that would mean.

"What I thought was, 'Oh, this is going to be a lot more work for us,' " Hanen says. "It's gonna be a lot of headache. The people in South Texas, there are a lot of hard feelings about the wall."

Details of the next phase of the wall are unclear. For instance, there's no word whether the federal government is trying to get Mexico to reimburse it to pay for the land along the Rio Grande.

Parker Yesko contributed to this report.

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Corrected: February 23, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Eloisa Tamez is a professor at the University of Texas, Brownsville. She is actually at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.