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On the border, Trump moves to build his wall one landowner at a time

A shadow from the existing border wall in Mission, Texas. Construction of President Trump’s border wall has been slow going, in part because the Texans who own the land have to be coaxed or coerced to sell it, whether they want to or not.
A shadow from the existing border wall in Mission, Texas. Construction of President Trump’s border wall has been slow going, in part because the Texans who own the land have to be coaxed or coerced to sell it, whether they want to or not. Ilana Panich-Linsman/New York Times

PROGRESO, Texas — Two days after giving the federal government his signature, Richard Drawe paused with his wife and mother on a levee that his family has owned for nearly a century to watch the cranes and roseate spoonbills.

A border wall that he reluctantly agreed to put on his land will soon divide this Texan family from the whole scene: the levee, a lake, an onion field, and all of those birds.

Drawe, 69, doubts the wall will do much to stop illegal immigration, and although he supports the president who ordered it, he believes that the construction will “ruin” his life. But selling the land early on seemed better and cheaper than facing the government in court, only to have it take the land anyway. The wall, the lights, and the roads will be built on about a dozen acres that his grandfather bought in the 1920s, and that will cut him off from the priceless views of the Rio Grande that he cherishes.

“We just finally gave up,” he said. “If they offered me a million dollars to build the wall, I would refuse it if I knew they wouldn’t build it. I don’t want the money. This is my life here.”

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The White House is hoping more landowners along the border will make the same decision — and help President Trump deliver on his campaign promise to build 450 miles of new border wall by 2021.

The list of challenges still facing Trump’s “big, beautiful” wall include an investigation into construction contracts, funding delays, and a recent legal decision blocking emergency access to Defense Department funds to build it. The nationwide injunction has, for now, curtailed wall work on 175 miles in Laredo and El Paso, Texas; in Yuma, Ariz.; and in El Centro, Calif.

But access to private land like Drawe’s may be the tallest barrier standing between the president and his wall.

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The administration has built only 93 miles of the new wall, nearly all of it on federal land where dilapidated barriers existed or vehicle barriers once stood, according to Customs and Border Protection. The border wall’s final path is not yet set, but 162 miles of it will run through southern Texas, and 144 miles of that is privately owned, according to the border agency. The Trump administration has acquired just 3 miles since 2017.

Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, raised doubts about meeting the administration’s deadline.

“It’s hard right now to say whether we’re still going to meet that goal,” Morgan said of building the wall by 2021. “But I’m confident we’re going to be close.”

Throughout Trump’s first term, the White House has pushed the Department of Homeland Security to speed wall construction, an effort that has been led most recently by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. As the sense of urgency has grown, Trump — no stranger to the powers of eminent domain — has suggested during meetings to “take the land” of private landowners.

The law is on the administration’s side. Eminent domain lawyers and scholars said in interviews that landowners along the border have limited options once they receive a request from the government.

They can voluntarily allow the authorities to access and survey their land and, if officials decide they want it, accept the government’s offer. Or they can be taken to court where they can argue for higher compensation.

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But under the law, even before the landowners are paid in full, the government can begin construction.

By using eminent domain powers, federal lawyers can argue in court that the construction of the wall is an emergency, which almost always results in the court’s granting the government physical possession of the land, according to Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. The government can then begin building — even as landowners litigate for full pay for years.

“It’s like agreeing to sell your house, but only after do you agree on a set price,” Olivares said.

The United States brought more than 300 cases against landowners for their property after President George W. Bush signed a bill to begin installing fencing along the border in 2006, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. Just 46 of those cases are ongoing. The government reached a settlement to acquire the land of most of the other property owners, and some of that fencing is now turning into a more substantial wall. Many landowners voluntarily let the government access their lands, Justice Department officials said.

The Trump administration has picked up where the Bush administration left off, filing 48 lawsuits to survey and begin work on other parcels.

“They’re going to acquire the land for their wall, whether you negotiate with them upfront or they end up filing a lawsuit and taking it by a declaration of taking,” said Roy Brandys, an attorney specializing in eminent domain who represented Drawe.

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Adding to the heartache is where the wall is actually going. The construction is not on the border, which runs along the Rio Grande. It is well within the US side. Drawe will lose easy access to the land between the wall and the river — about 350 of his 525 acres. The government has agreed to pay him about $42,000 for the 12 acres that the wall will be built on and about $197,000 to compensate for depressing the value of his farm, Drawe said. Gates are supposed to provide access to his property south of the wall.

By Drawe’s reckoning, that might be of limited value. He has found packages of drugs on his farm before, he said, and is concerned that the cartel members Trump cites as the reason for the construction will take control of all the land south of the wall.

“If the wall goes up,” Drawe said, “it will be the new border.”