Bat­tle brews over wall

Texas landown­ers pre­par­ing to fight against Trump

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By No­maan Mer­chant

HI­DALGO, Texas — As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to make the case for his $5.7 bil­lion wall, Texas landowner Eloisa Cava­zos says she knows first­hand how the pro­ject will play out if the White House gets its way.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has started sur­vey­ing land along the bor­der in Texas and an­nounced plans to start con­struc­tion next month. Rather than sur­ren­der their land, some prop­erty own­ers are dig­ging in, vow­ing to re­ject buy­out of­fers and pre­par­ing to fight the ad­min­is­tra­tion in court.

“You could give me a tril­lion dol­lars and I wouldn’t take it,” said Cava­zos, whose land sits along the Rio Grande, the river sep­a­rat­ing the U.S. and Mex­ico in Texas. “It’s not about money.”

Congress in March funded 33 miles of walls and fenc­ing in Texas. The gov­ern­ment has laid out plans that would cut across pri­vate land in the Rio Grande Val­ley. Those in the way in­clude landown­ers who have lived in the val­ley for gen­er­a­tions, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and a 19th cen­tury chapel.

Many have hired lawyers who are pre­par­ing to fight the gov­ern­ment if, as ex­pected, it moves to seize their land through em­i­nent do­main.

The op­po­si­tion will in­ten­sify if Democrats ac­cede to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­mand to build more than 215 new miles of wall, in­clud­ing 104 miles in the Rio Grande Val­ley and 55 miles near Laredo. Even a com­pro­mise so­lu­tion to build “steel slats,” as Trump has sug­gested, or more fenc­ing of the kind that Democrats have pre­vi­ously sup­ported would likely trig­ger more court cases and push­back in Texas.

Le­gal ex­perts say Trump likely can­not waive em­i­nent do­main — which re­quires the gov­ern­ment to demon­strate a pub­lic use for the land and pro­vide landown­ers with com­pen­sa­tion — by declar­ing a na­tional emer­gency.

While Trump’s first visit to the bor­der in Texas as pres­i­dent came this past week, his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion crack­down has been felt here for months.

Hun­dreds of the more than 2,400 chil­dren sep­a­rated from their par­ents last sum­mer were de­tained in cages at a Bor­der Pa­trol fa­cil­ity in McAllen. Three “ten­der-age” fa­cil­i­ties for the youngest chil­dren were opened in this re­gion.

The pres­i­dent also or­dered sol­diers to the bor­der in re­sponse to a wave of mi­grant car­a­vans be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion. Those troops had a heavy pres­ence in the Rio Grande Val­ley, though they have since qui­etly left. A spokes­woman for the bor­der se­cu­rity mis­sion said they closed their base camp along the bor­der on Dec. 22.

Build­ing in the re­gion is a top pri­or­ity for the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity be­cause it’s the busiest area for il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings. More than 23,000 par­ents and chil­dren were caught il­le­gally cross­ing the bor­der in the Rio Grande Val­ley in Novem­ber — more than triple the num­ber from a year ear­lier.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials ar­gue that a wall would stop many cross­ings and de­ter Cen­tral Amer­i­can fam­i­lies from try­ing to mi­grate north. Many of those fam­i­lies are seek­ing asy­lum be­cause of vi­o­lence in their home coun­tries and often turn them­selves in to bor­der agents when they ar­rive here.

The num­ber of fam­i­lies has surged. DHS said that it de­tained 27,518 adults and chil­dren trav­el­ing to­gether on the south­ern bor­der in De­cem­ber, a new monthly high.

With part of the $1.6 bil­lion Congress ap­proved in March, U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion an­nounced it would build 25 miles of wall along the flood-con­trol levee in Hi­dalgo County, well north of the Rio Grande.

Congress did not al­low con­struc­tion of any of Trump’s wall pro­to­types. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans call for a con­crete wall to the height of the ex­ist­ing levee, with 18-foot steel posts on top. CBP wants to clear 150 feet in front of any new con­struc­tion for an “en­force­ment zone” of ac­cess roads, cam­eras, and light­ing.

The gov­ern­ment sued the lo­cal Ro­man Catholic dio­cese late last year to gain ac­cess for its sur­vey­ors at the site of La Lomita chapel, which opened in 1865.

It remains an epi­cen­ter of the Rio Grande Val­ley’s Catholic com­mu­nity, host­ing wed­dings and fu­ner­als, as well as an an­nual Palm Sun­day pro­ces­sion that draws 2,000 peo­ple.

The chapel is a short dis­tance from the Rio Grande. It falls into the area where CBP wants to build its “en­force­ment zone.”

Fa­ther Roy Snipes leads prayers each Fri­day for his chapel to be spared. Wear­ing a cow­boy hat with his white robe and metal cross, he’s known lo­cally as the “cow­boy priest” and some­times takes a boat on the Rio Grande to go from his home to the chapel.

“It would poi­son the water,” Snipes said. “It would still be a sa­cred place, but it would be a sa­cred place that was des­e­crated.”

JOHN L. MONE/AP

Roy Snipes, pas­tor of the La Lomita Chapel, could see part of his church land seized for Trump’s bor­der wall.

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