04 Apr The impacts of additional fencing along the Texas-Mexico Border

By Efrén Olivares, Brooke Bischoff, and Emma Hilbert

 

The following testimony was submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs for a hearing on the planning, designing, and cost of President Trump’s proposed fence for the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Dear Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs:

The Texas Civil Rights Project (“TCRP”) respectfully submits this statement for consideration before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ hearing on fencing along the southwest border, scheduled for Tuesday, April 4, 2017.

Over the course of its 26-year history, TCRP has fought to empower Texas communities through legal advocacy, including those living on the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, with offices in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, we have longstanding and direct connections with the residents of border communities. We share our expertise with you in hopes that you will fully appreciate the negative effects of additional fencing in Texas’ border communities.

Approximately 674,433 people live in El Paso and 1,305,782 in the Rio Grande Valley.[1] El Paso, combined with the larger Paso Del Norte metropolitan area, is home to the largest bilingual and binational work force in the Western Hemisphere.[2] In the Rio Grande Valley, the agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism industries rely on the daily flow of people back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico.[3] Last year alone, Texas’ exports to Mexico exceeded 92 billion dollars.[4] Adding more fencing or other physical barriers to this shared border would not only irreparably damage the economic viability of these communities, but also threaten the human rights of U.S. citizens and other border residents.

In El Paso County alone, over 200 privately-owned parcels of land lie along the border.[5] In the Rio Grande Valley, privately-owned border properties number nearly 300.[6] Over 50 of these parcels house American-owned small businesses, including ranches, factories, and farms.[7] Many of these private citizens and small businesses were previously forced to relinquish their private property to the federal government when it embarked upon a fence-building project under the Secure Fence Act of 2006.[8] As the community is acutely aware, the resulting fence cost over 1.2 billion dollars and has not reduced unauthorized border crossings by any significant degree.[9] Building a new wall or additional fencing would further strip away the property rights of individual and business landowners without any evidence of increased utility.

Countless Texas families have already suffered the devastating effect of having their land taken by the federal government. Indeed, many communities are still reeling from the 2008 border fence construction, when homeowners were systematically offered wholly inadequate compensation for properties seized through eminent domain proceedings and subsequently saddled with government fences and security towers in their backyards.[10] After the construction of the fence, Border Patrol enforcement actions and constant fence repairs damaged so much private property that the government had to set up a special claims system to allow landowners to collect damages.[11]

The story of one of TCRP’s clients, Ms. Eloisa Tamez, illustrates how local families were harmed by that first round of fence-related condemnation actions in 2008.[12] Ms. Tamez and her family, who are members of the Lipan Apache tribe, have lived in the community of El Calaboz, near Brownsville, for over five generations, since before Texas was even part of the United States. That land was their home, and there was no amount of money that could constitute “just compensation”—as required by the Constitution—when the government wanted to take it away from them.

Ms. Tamez’s property is now bisected by a metal fence that has devalued her land irreparably. To visit the southern part of her land, which lies between the fence and the Rio Grande River, she must key-in an access code to go through the a gate in the fence. That the fence on her property includes a gate that can be opened everyday illustrates that this fence was not truly aimed at stopping unauthorized border crossings, but rather serving as a political statement.

The current administration’s plan to expand the border wall would cost over 20 billion dollars,[13] and estimates have placed that figure as high as 40 billion dollars, although it is not clear whether these figures have taken into account the full price of providing just compensation to landowners.[14] As noted above, expanding the wall would also involve exercising eminent domain over hundreds of parcels of privately held land in Texas. Conversations with community members, increasingly reported by the press, show that border landowners overwhelmingly oppose new construction, and are determined to resist eminent domain actions.

In addition to the monetary impact, taking land away from Texan families also carries an incalculable human cost. Such is the case of a landowner in Sullivan City, who has owned land in the community of Los Ebanos for generations. She still lives on land that the government has tried to expropriate, and expressed it this way to TCRP attorneys:

When the government comes from Washington to take our land here in the border, they don’t know us. They don’t know our community. They don’t know our neighbors. They don’t know how hard our families have worked for generations, for decades, to own and preserve this land. Then one day they simply come and try to take whatever they want, trying to pay whatever they want. They are offering us $2,900.00 for over 1.2 acres of land! That is insulting! When the government treats us like that, we feel like they don’t even consider us human. We feel like, to the government, we’re worth nothing.

It was clear in 2008, and it is clear today, that building a fence was not and is not an effective solution to unauthorized immigration–instead, it represents a political game, played with the property rights of some of the poorest communities in the country. For that reason, TCRP is prepared to represent landowners, particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds, and use public education efforts to protect the rights of all Texans who call the borderlands their home. We honored this commitment in 2008 when we helped landowners on the border file defenses to eminent domain proceedings for the first round of fence building, and we will honor that commitment again now.

Efrén Olivares is the Racial and Economic Justice Program Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Brooke Bischoff is an Equal Justice Works Fellow and attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Emma Hilbert is an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

To download the full testimony, click here

 


[1] United States Census Bureau, Population and Housing Estimates https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest.html (last visited April 3, 2017).

[2] “El Paso and Juarez know what happens when a wall divides two cities,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-trump-wall-el-paso-20170125-story.html

[3] Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, http://riograndevalleytx.us/ (last visited April 3, 2017).

[4] Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Texas Exports, Jobs & Foreign Investment, February 2017, http://www.trade.gov/mas/ian/statereports/states/tx.pdf.

[5] El Paso County Property Records, http://gis.elpasotexas.gov/pdnmapajs/

[6] Cameron County Property Records, http://www.cameroncad.org/cadclientdb/propertymap.aspx; Hidalgo County Property Records, http://propaccess.hidalgoad.org/mapSearch/?cid=1.

[7] Based on TCRP’s analysis of El Paso County’s Property Records.

[8] A list of 334 fence-related eminent domain actions can be consulted at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1jkuxoIUetKQ_enRoO2cnww7rfs6nivd2LLAsxpUyHB0/edit#gid=1466917367.

[9] “Here’s what we know about Trump’s Mexico Wall,” Bloomberg News, February 13, 2017, last updated March 29, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-trump-mexico-wall/will-a-wall-be-effective/ (last visited April 3, 2017).

[10] See, for example, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. 0.07 ACRE OF LAND, more or less, et al ($1,200.00 settlement); UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. 0.04 ACRE of LAND, MORE or LESS, et al ($1,250.00 settlement); UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. 0.04 of Acres of Land, More or Less et al ($1,000.00 settlement); UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. 0.23 ACRES OF LAND, more or less, situated in Hidalgo County, Texas et al ($1,000.00 settlement).

[11] United States Government Accountability Office, “Southwest Border: Issues Related to Private Property Damage,” April 2015, available at: http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/669936.pdf.

[12] See United States v. 1.04 acres of land, more or less, situated in Cameron County, Texas, and Eloisa G. Tamez, et al., No. 1:08-CV-00044, Southern District of Texas, Brownsville Division.

[13] “Trump border wall funding facing delay,” BBC, March 29, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39434413 (last visited April 3, 2017).

[14] Bad Math Props Up Trump’s wall, MIT Technology Review, October 18, 2016, available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602494/bad-math-props-up-trumps-border-wall/