The country is drowning in a flood of illegals and the few thing about oh poor me.
For 2½ centuries, Cecilia Benavides’ family has owned land tangled with honey mesquite trees and towering clumps of cactus on a sweeping bend of the Rio Grande.
Generations of family have gathered by the water’s edge to swim, fish for catfish and alligator gar and hold Easter jamborees.
But this land is considered prime territory for something more than swimming and fishing: For years, the federal government has pondered a way to build a stronger barrier across it to halt illegal immigration from Mexico.
In February, federal authorities made the long-looming threat concrete. A letter from the U.S. attorney in southern Texas informed the Benavides family that the government intends to seize a 60-foot-wide strip of the property to build new sections of a border wall.
“It’s a beautiful piece of land, just like it was when the original settlers came over,” Noel Benavides, 74, Cecilia’s husband, said of the rustic plot where bobcats and peccaries roam. “You go in, and it’s a different world — but that’s not going to be once we have a big wall that cuts through the ecosystem.”
A string of ranchers, farmers and others who own property across the Rio Grande Valley have received similar condemnation letters from the Department of Justice in recent months, all resulting from a 2006 initiative launched by President George W. Bush to build new, secure fencing along the Southwest border.
The land condemnations are expected to increase substantially with President Trump’s plans to build new sections of wall. Already, Trump has requested that Congress fund the hiring of 20 additional federal attorneys to work on land acquisition for a border wall.
The initiative has sparked deep worry here, where many landowners fear it will change the character of their historic communities, cut off water access, stifle commerce and disrupt the movement of wildlife.
“This is a battle,” said U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district covers 280 miles of the border. “In Texas, we have a long tradition of private property rights. Any time big government starts using eminent domain and taking land — especially the valuable part, access to water — then it becomes a battle cry. Lawsuits will definitely be coming in.”
Jeremy Barnard, general manager of the River Bend Resort & Golf Club in Brownsville, Texas, says his family has put expansion plans on hold because they worry a wall would slice off the bulk of their investment.
Some landowners, however, worry that they have little choice but to cede the land to federal authorities.
“It’s something that the government wants and the government can take,” said Noel Benavides, who does not expect to mount a legal challenge. “There’s no way to fight it.”
About a third of the 1,954-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the most populated cities, is already fenced. But here in the valley, where the winding Rio Grande forms a natural dividing line, less than a fifth of the border has fencing.
The challenges of building a wall in the floodplains of the valley — a hot spot for drug smugglers and for Central American families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum — are immense. Not only does construction near the river present engineering difficulties and potential flood hazards, but many small landowners also have long-standing historic and cultural ties to their property and depend on the river to irrigate their crops.
Condemnation of riverfront land around the small communities of Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos has loomed since 2008, when property owners near highly populated sections of the border received official notices from the government.
About 56 miles of fencing went up, most on levees above the Rio Grande on land the government took through eminent domain. Plans to build another 14 miles were abandoned because an international treaty restricts building in the floodplain, said Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Borderlands Team for the Sierra Club.
Of the roughly 350 condemnation cases stemming from that era, about 85 have not been settled, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
“No land has been condemned in South Texas to date as a result of any executive order of the current administration,” the office said in a statement. “The current cases in litigation are not connected to the current border security initiative.”