2020 saw marked increase in border wall lawsuits

The federal government drastically increased its efforts to seize private land from residents of Hidalgo and Starr counties for the border wall in 2020 with a noted acceleration in filings after Election Day as well as in the two months leading up to that day.

After President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13767 on Jan. 25, 2017, which paved the way for his signature campaign promise to build the wall, AIM Media Texas has been tracking federal border wall filings in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties.

AIM Media Texas owns The Monitor, The Brownsville Herald and the Valley Morning Star — the region’s predominant daily newspapers.

Between November 2018, when the first border wall lawsuit was filed, and Dec. 31, 2019, the government filed a total of 19 lawsuits against property owners in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties seeking access to just over 570 acres of land.

In 2020, the government filed 102 lawsuits, nearly 10 times the total since it began filing the suits. In all, the government is seeking access to or the actual taking of about 592 acres of land in the three border counties.

And nearly half, 42, of these lawsuits have been filed after Nov. 3, when Trump lost his re-election bid to President-elect Joe Biden. In the two months prior to Election Day, the government filed 27 lawsuits, with 17 in September and 10 in October.

No other month in 2020 saw double-digit filings.

During a Dec. 23 news conference, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, noted that the process for building border wall has accelerated.

The big question for residents of the Rio Grande Valley, especially those whose land has been targeted for border wall, is what will Biden do?

In early December, the Associated Press noted in a story about efforts to build wall on the border that Biden pledged in August to not build “another foot” of wall and “withdraw the lawsuits.”

The AP reported that Jennifer Molina, a spokeswoman for Biden’s transition team, said the president-elect would end Trump’s national emergency declaration and “invest in real solutions” like “smart border enforcement efforts” and “investments in improving screening infrastructure” at ports of entry, but declined to elaborate.

Cuellar, however, said the Department of Defense unofficially told him its already begun preparations for Biden’s likely stop-work order, which would include preparing notices of termination.

According to Cuellar, the notice can be delivered in a few days if Biden gives the order and once a contractor receives one, they need to immediately stop work, terminate subcontracts and place no further work orders.

The congressman says a process for cost settlements will likely then be initiated.

As for the lawsuits filed in 2020, the majority, 66, targeted property in Starr County. In the last year, the government also filed 32 such suits in Hidalgo County and four in Cameron County.

Those filings seek a little more than 313 acres in Hidalgo County, about 321 acres in Starr County and more than 20 acres in Cameron County.

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have consistently maintained that illegal crossings and drug seizures are reduced in areas with border wall. CBP’s Rio Grande Valley Sector remains the busiest region in the nation for such seizures and illegal crossings.

And CBP says it’s nearing its goal of completing 450 miles of border wall by Dec. 31.

According to CBP’s border wall tracker, a total of 423 miles have been built.

Cuellar, however, said on Dec. 23 that just 25 miles are actual new wall while the rest is replacement or double placement.

According to a story published by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica on Dec. 23, the government planned to build 110 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley, but has only built 15 miles.

Those news organizations, which have a partnership, conducted an investigation that found the government has been awarding border wall contracts before acquiring land leading to millions of dollars in costs due to delays.

As for Cuellar, on Dec. 9, he sent a letter to Biden laying out four actions he thinks the president-elect should take to stop government efforts to build the border wall once he is sworn in on Jan. 20, including terminating all current and pending U.S. Army Corps of Engineer contracts along the southwest border.

“Additionally, halt the expenditure of all previously appropriated federal funding from Homeland Security accounts for any additional construction of a wall at the southern border that is in opposition to the stated interests of private and public landowners,” Cuellar wrote.

He also asked Biden to direct the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General to dismiss all ongoing condemnation litigation and related civil proceedings against private and public landowners.

“We ask that you work to ensure ample protections are created so that future administrations cannot leverage eminent domain federal precedent to undertake similar projects, despite the opposition of local communities and private residents,” Cuellar wrote.

Cuellar also wants Biden to prohibit DHS from using its waiver authority relating to the construction of new border wall.

DHS is allowed to waive numerous laws that could pose as roadblocks toward its efforts to build border wall, including laws regarding the environment and human remains.

The agency first began waiving laws in the Rio Grande Valley in 2017.

“We ask that you, thereby, remove overly broad authority of the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all legal requirements that, in the Secretary’s view, may delay construction of barriers at the U.S. southwest border. Rescinding this authority would ensure that the Department of Homeland Security adheres to the same laws any other federal department or agency would have to follow,” Cuellar wrote.

Lastly, Cuellar wants Biden to rescind Proclamation 9844, the “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States,” and return funds appropriated by Congress back to their originally desginated defense and military construction accounts.

This proclamation allowed the Trump administration to use funds designated to military construction budgets toward border wall projects.

Cuellar, along with 34 congressional members who signed on to the letter, want Biden to immediately prioritize these four actions.

“We find urgency in our desire to remedy the challenges our communities have faced over the last four years due to the wasteful agenda of the previous administration. The ongoing public health and economic crises in our communities only serve to highlight these priorities in the 117th Congress. We, therefore, compel your Administration to act swiftly and look forward to working with you in support of these efforts,” Cuellar wrote.