For South Texas landowners, Donald Trump's presidential win came as a warning shot. With a campaign centered on the rallying cry "Build that wall," Trump's election meant their private property may soon be crowded with unwanted construction — and may no longer be theirs, at all.
Shortly after Trump's January inauguration, some landowners along the borderlands began getting letters in the mail
from the U.S Department of Homeland Security, giving them two options: accept a payout from the feds or prepare to have your property seized through eminent domain. The letters came with pages of legalese and unclear threats (and no Spanish translation), and left longtime landowners with more questions than answers.
That's why Texas lawyers have kicked off a campaign to educate these property owners on their rights before the feds roll in.
On Wednesday, the Texas Civil Rights Project announced a plan to work with any border landowner to make sure they're adequately represented in court.
“We are ready for a contested, protracted resistance alongside Texan landowners," said Efrén Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice Director at the TCRP in a press release.
In most cases, that means helping landowners get the most amount of money for their land from the feds.
The announcement came with a pair of bilingual videos that act as SparkNotes on eminent domain laws for landowners.
"The federal government must offer you 'just compensation' for your land, so they must pay you what your land is worth," one slide reads. "Remember, the federal government must follow the rule of law and treat landowners with respect."
This isn't first time TCRP will represent landowners living on proposed border wall land. The threat of a Mexico-U.S. wall has hung over South Texas landowners long before Donald Trump was elected president. In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing the construction of 700 miles of border fence between California and Texas. Some 600 landowners in the fence zone were ordered by DHS to make their property available for survey teams and construction crews — prompting both individual and class-action lawsuits from borderland owners against the feds, many brought by TCRP attorneys.
Eleven years later, and some of cases are still open. TCRP attorney Emma Hilbert said that they've already reached out to the 12 or so families they represented in the past, but none of them have received a letter from the feds — yet.
"It's better to prepare them beforehand," Hilbert told the Current
. "We want them to know that we're here to help when the time comes."
She said they aren't only connecting with people whose land lies directly in the path of the proposed wall, but anyone whose property could be affected by its general existence.
"The border fence is already an effective dam. Sticks and leaves get caught in it, and eventually it starts flooding," Hilbert said. "When you add a wall, you're going to see serious flooding that could change the width and length of the entire river."
She's hoping the campaign spreads "like wildfire" across the borderlands between neighbors, but the attorneys are also planning to hold informational meetings in Texas border communities. While necessary, this project isn't one TCRP attorneys are happy they have to roll out.
"Ultimately, we know that the proposed border wall is the type of wrongheaded policy that threatens our community," said Olivares on Wednesday. "[It] distracts from the real issues facing our broken immigration system.”