How the government abused eminent domain the last time it built a border fence in Texas

As the president declares a national emergency to get more money for a border barrier, it's worth taking a look at what happened last time the government took private land along the Rio Grande.

A construction crew built a portion of the border wall along Oklahoma Avenue south of Brownsville in 2009.
A construction crew built a portion of the border wall along Oklahoma Avenue south of Brownsville in 2009.  Brad Doherty for The Texas Tribune

Once again, the Rio Grande Valley is seeing the signs that more border fencing is coming: construction equipment gathering near the Rio Grande, brush being cleared, residents receiving letters from the government asking to survey their property and possibly claim some of it through eminent domain. The government plans to build another 33 miles of concrete-and-steel-post fencing in the near future, adding to fencing built a decade ago under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Before that existing fencing went up, the federal government launched its most aggressive seizure of private land in decades. In less than a year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security filed more than 360 eminent domain lawsuits against property owners, involving thousands of acres of land in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. And in countless cases, the government gave landowners lowball offers based on flawed appraisals. Many of those land seizure cases remained tied up in court more than a decade later.

Those are some of the conclusions from The Taking, an investigation by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica in 2017 that found Homeland Security cut unfair real estate deals, secretly waived legal safeguards for property owners and ultimately abused the government’s extraordinary power to take land from private citizens.

You can read the original investigation here. To see all of our stories in The Taking, visit the project's series page here.

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