Judge grants gov’t ‘immediate possession’ of private land for border wall

Jose Alfredo Cavazos looks out on the Rio Grande from his family's property on Oct. 1, 2018, in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

During a federal court hearing Tuesday, a family learned that a portion of land they’ve called home since the 1950s is no longer theirs, but instead, belongs now to the federal government.

It was a decision that came as a shock for the Cavazos family, who have spent years trying to keep their land from the reach of the federal government.

“I just cried,” said Baudilia Cavazos Rodriguez of her reaction to the order handed down by U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez on Tuesday granting immediate possession of her family’s land for future border wall construction.

The land — some 6.5 acres near the river — belongs to Cavazos Rodriguez’s sister and brother, whom she said rely on the rent from some 30 tenants who use the land for recreational purposes as their income.

Members of the Cavazos family, including Cavazos-Rodriguez, were listening in to the court hearing Tuesday, where they expected to hear more delays regarding the government’s motion to take immediate possession of the land.

With a new president in the White House — one who, on his first day in office, ordered a 60-day moratorium on border wall construction — her family was hopeful the government would walk back its efforts to take the land for that construction.

But that’s not what happened.

Cavazos Rodriguez said she didn’t realize at first that the judge had rendered a decision to strip the family of their land until she spoke with the family’s attorney afterward. By that point, Alvarez’s 21-page opinion explaining her decision had already been posted for public view.

“Court STRIKES Defendant’s defenses and objections, DENIES Defendant’s motion to dismiss, and GRANTS the United States’ motion for immediate possession,” the opinion reads, in part.

“It kind of took my breath away,” Cavazos Rodriguez said.

The family’s attorney was equally taken by surprise.

“Biden said on the campaign trail, ‘Not one more foot. We’re gonna dismiss the lawsuits. We’re not gonna take the land,’” said Ricky Garza, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been helping Rio Grande Valley landowners fight similar land condemnation lawsuits.

“I didn’t appreciate after all of these years — the family fighting, the promises from this new administration, the hope they held out — that where we are right now… that the land was given to the government under a president that said he was not going to build another foot. That’s really troubling for me,” Garza said.

Alvarez’s decision marks a first under the young term of President Joe Biden, who campaigned on stopping the border wall.

Shortly after being sworn in Jan. 20, Biden issued an executive order that halted border wall construction for 60 days and set border wall funding for review. But what the order failed to mention was a directive on what the U.S. Department of Justice should do in regard to any pending land condemnation lawsuits.

With more than 140 such suits pending in federal courts from Brownsville to Laredo, government prosecutors have, up to now, been unsure of how to proceed on the cases in the wake of the order’s expiration. And the response has differed from court to court.

While the Cavazos family has known that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been interested in their land since 2017, it wasn’t until last August that prosecutors filed for immediate possession of the land — one of dozens such suits the government filed in the waning days of the Trump administration.

Reached for comment Wednesday, a spokesperson for CBP said the White House has not issued new guidance on the suits and the agency is still operating under the directives of the president’s Jan. 20 executive order.

“CBP and USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) have suspended real estate acquisition activities, such as surveys and negotiations with landowners, in accordance with the President’s Proclamation,” the spokesperson said via email.

“Any questions related to activities with court proceedings should be referred to the Department of Justice.”

Garza believes Alvarez rendered her decision, in part, simply due to timing.

“I think that Judge Alvarez, faced with these cases, ruled on the motions before her,” Garza said.

“We disagree with the outcome, but ultimately the one that could have remedied this immediately was the Department of Justice,” he said, referring to the ability for prosecutors to nonsuit the case.

Alvarez declined to offer comment on her ruling.

For Cavazos Rodriguez and her cousin, Rey Anzaldua, the decision feels like a betrayal from the president himself.

“Our strategy was to delay, delay, delay until Trump was out of office. And then when Biden started saying, ‘Well, not one more foot wall,’ we were kind of happy about that, and then this hit us here,” Anzaldua said.

“Refusing to withdraw the motion for immediate possession based on executive orders that came from Trump, it feels like a betrayal at this point,” said Garza, the family’s attorney.

The family said they will continue to fight for their land, continue to fight to honor the last wishes of their grandmother, Eloisa Garza Cavazos — a Hispanic woman who purchased the land in the 1950s when it was rare for women to do so.

“She said, ‘Don’t ever sell this property because it’ll feed you. You can always farm it, you can always raise animals. You can always do something. You can always have something,’” Anzaldua said.

That their mother, Elvira Vecchione Cavazos —  an Italian woman who married their father, Raul Cavzos during World War II,  was herself an immigrant makes the government’s plans to build a border wall to keep immigrants out of the country anathema to the family.

“This wall, to me, it’s a symbol of hate and racism. … This is a feel good project for the idiots up north,” Anzaldua said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Cavazos family’s grandmother, Eloisa Garza Cavazos, was an American citizen who purchased the riverside land, and that Cavazos Rodriguez’s mother, Elvira Vecchione Cavazos was an Italian immigrant.