Taking the Land for the Wall Will Be a Nightmare

Just ask George W. Bush.
Photographer David Maung/Bloomberg

To build his border wall, President Trump will first have to go through the second hole of the River Bend Resort & Golf Club in Brownsville, Texas. The course, on 135 acres, is so close to the U.S.-Mexico border that the Rio Grande keeps the fairway green, and Border Patrol agents congregate near the clubhouse to nab drug smugglers trying to slip through. “On some of these holes you can hit a power fade and your ball needs a passport because it goes into Mexico,” says Jeremy Barnard, general manager of the resort co-owned by his father, Mark.

Along with a potential lack of concrete and documented construction workers, one of the main hurdles Trump will face is the use of eminent domain—taking land from private owners for public use. Federal and tribal lands make up only one-third of the 2,000-mile southern border, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Private and state-owned lands constitute the rest, primarily in Texas. Using eminent domain to build a wall could lead to costly, time-consuming negotiations, potentially with hundreds of private landowners. “They’re going to have to deal with guys like us,” says Mark Barnard.

Mark Barnard

Mark Barnard

Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

An eminent domain proceeding often begins with a knock on the door or a letter from the government saying the landowner’s private property is needed for public use. The parties often reach a settlement, sometimes after the government files a lawsuit.

Under President George W. Bush the government built a fence along part of the border, using eminent domain to acquire the needed land. Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says that in many cases the government offered only the value of the small strip of land where the fence would be built, not taking into account that the fence would divide the property. “There was a sense that it wasn’t fair,” she says.

During the campaign, Trump spoke of a wall 35 to 50 feet high. That could cost as much as $25 billion, according to analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein.

The law authorizing the Bush barrier called for a fence stretching about 700 miles across the southern border. Of the 225 miles to be built in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, more than half was initially slated to cross land the federal government didn’t own. Two years in, the project stalled. “Gaining access rights … delayed the completion of fence construction and may increase the cost beyond available funding,” according to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General. At the time, the government still needed to negotiate purchases with more than 480 landowners.

Even before acquiring the land for a wall, officials need to survey sites, negotiate voluntary sales, relocate some owners, and file lawsuits against holdouts. In Texas the most obvious spot to start a wall would be on an existing government-owned flood levee, which snakes through the border region.

“When people talk about Trump’s wall, this is where your wall would go,” says the younger Barnard, pointing to a levee that cuts through the palm tree-lined property. Fifteen of River Bend’s 18 holes sit on the south side of the levee. The resort is also home to more than 200 plots on the south side, where retirees park RVs spruced up with American flags. Their property will be stuck in no man’s land if the wall is built.

Othal Brand Jr.

Othal Brand Jr.

Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

Othal Brand Jr., who’s running for mayor in McAllen, Texas, couldn’t wait for Trump to crack down on illegal border crossings. Still, he says, the wall is a fool’s errand. He’d rather see more Border Patrol agents along the river, among other actions.

Jeremy Barnard voted for Trump and says a wall makes sense in certain places—just not on his property, where building it would be “complicated.” Lost property value could exceed $1 million, the Barnards say. Mark hopes the president, who owns 17 golf courses, will empathize with him. The elder Barnard says he’d like to invite Trump to come get a firsthand look at his course and gain a better understanding of the border terrain. And he says he’d ask him a question: “If the wall’s gonna totally wipe me out, what would you do? How would you want to be treated?”

The bottom line: Before President Trump’s wall can be built, the government will have to enforce eminent domain against hundreds of landowners.

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