Border Wall Hinges on Legal Team Devoted to Eminent Domain

WASHINGTON (The Dallas Morning News/TNS) -

The administration made no effort this week to explain how it will get Mexico to pay for a border wall, as the White House rolled out a budget that calls for a new squadron of lawyers focused on wresting land from border residents.

A sea-to-sea barrier of the sort promised by President Donald Trump would require control of land in a narrow strip along 2,000 miles. Not all landowners would be willing to sell. That means the project could require widespread use of “eminent domain” — the power to force owners to sell land for a public purpose.

“You’re taking land that in some cases belonged to people for generations. In Texas, private property rights is a very, very important concept,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat.

The president is asking Congress for $4.1 billion through next year to begin construction of a wall, a barrier projected to cost as much as $25 billion, plus annual repairs.

Tucked in the budget blueprint rolled out Thursday is a proposal to hire 20 attorneys to pursue federal efforts to obtain the land and holdings necessary to secure the Southwest border.

Conservatives embrace tighter border security but typically cast a wary eye at government land grabs. Foes of Trump’s plan for a wall hope that forges a potent, if unusual, coalition between people who fret about landowners’ rights and others focused on protecting immigrants.

“For a lot of people along the border, this isn’t their first rodeo when it comes to the federal government trying to seize their land to build a wall,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. He recalled fights after a 2006 law that authorized roughly 700 miles of fencing now in place. “There’s a lot of land and there are a lot of different land owners.”

Jawetz called the sums Trump has proposed so far for the wall “a drop in the bucket” but still sizeable.

“He’s definitely throwing several billion dollars at something that is going to be unneeded, unwanted and ineffective,” he said.

On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order requiring the “immediate” construction of a physical wall, and he vowed “100 percent repayment” from Mexico. He floated the possibility of slapping a 20-percent tariff on imports from Mexico. But U.S. consumers and businesses would pay that, and the White House quickly dropped the idea.

For now, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney conceded, funding would not come from Mexico at all.

“It gets us a start on the program, and you’ll see some of the wall being built this year,” he said of the initial budget request. “As to the source of funds, that’s up to the president and the Treasury and the State Department.”

Rep. Cuellar, who met with Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States on Thursday, reiterated that “Mexico is not going to pay for this wall. … We all want to secure the border, but there are smarter, better ways of securing the border. It’s a 14th-century solution to a 20th-century problem.”

As for the new legal team needed to condemn land for the project, Cuellar said such cases will clog courts that are already overloaded. He predicted resistance in Congress.

“We’re going to have some strategic fencing. … It’s not going to be what President Trump has envisioned,” he said.

Democrats have cast the Trump budget as a cruel plan to shift funding from programs such as Meals on Wheels — which delivers food to needy seniors — to pay for the wall and a defense buildup.

“Although I believe it is important to protect our nation and our military’s strength, it is not the job of the working class to carry such a heavy financial burden by paying for the physical construction of a border wall,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat.