How much land will the government seize for a border wall?


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The possibility of a border wall threatens people’s land and communities, especially in Texas. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.

President Donald Trump’s administration has not provided a detailed estimate of the cost or process for acquiring the swaths of private land in Texas needed to build a border wall there, concludes a new report commissioned by Democrats on the House’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection “officials cannot provide the Committee with any definitive real estate costs or requirements, cannot tell the Committee how many American citizens will have their land seized, and have no timeline for completing land acquisition efforts necessary to build the wall that President Trump has ordered,” states the report commissioned by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Eminent domain poses the biggest hurdle to border-wall construction in Texas, where nearly the entire length of its international boundary is privately owned. A USA TODAY NETWORK analysis of property records shows almost 5,000 parcels of land sit within 500 feet of the Texas border.

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South Texas, meanwhile, is a high priority for new barriers because of increased flows of drugs and migrants in the area and relatively little existing fencing compared to other busy corridors. 

The Democrats’ report cites testimony to the committee from DHS chief John Kelly about limited details the federal agency has developed so far on its use of eminent domain.

“DHS cannot state with certainty how many parcels of unacquired land have been identified for the border wall,” Kelly said in response to the committee’s questions during a September hearing. He said the department was still doing research “and will not have a definitive answer until that process is complete.”

Congress is set to debate in the next few months funding for two important pieces of the administration’s plans to build additional physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border.

As part of the budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, the House has approved $1.6 billion to build 60 miles of new fencing in South Texas, and to replace 14 miles of fencing in San Diego. Trump is also asking for $1.8 million to fund 20 new eminent domain attorneys at the Department of Justice. 

“As the Administration continues to discuss its plans for a border wall, it’s concerning that agencies don’t have answers about what land it will take from Americans, how long this process will take, and how much it will cost,” a spokesperson for the minority staff said. 

The new report follows another from the committee’s minority staff published in April about the cost of building a border wall. That document placed the pricetag of construction at $70 billion, almost triple a DHS estimate, without considering legal fees associated with eminent domain. They based that number on statistics CBP shared with the committee about the construction of eight border wall prototypes in San Diego.

A spokesperson for CBP said they had nothing to add. DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

The federal government had previously entered into 330 condemnation cases in south Texas during efforts to expand fencing in the area in 2008 under the administration of George W. Bush. About 90 of them are still pending.

The report cited testimony from landowners in the area who talked about the struggle they faced when their land was condemned — a decline in property values and unjust compensation — and voiced concern it could happen again.

In some cases, property owners’ land was split in two to build fencing as much as two miles inland from the border. The floodplain of the Rio Grande, which marks the international boundary in Texas, poses challenges to construction on the border itself.

Two Democratic lawmakers in the House introduced legislation last month to prohibit the federal government from seizing land to build physical barriers. That bill has been referred to two subcommittees, including one led by Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona.

The House Committee on Homeland Security marked up and passed along party lines a bill authored by the chairman, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul. That legislation would set aside $10 billion over four years for additional border infrastructure, including border barriers, staff and technology.

The president himself and administration officials have acknowledged a wall is not needed along the entire U.S-Mexico border. Most recently, Trump’s pick to lead DHS echoed those sentiments last week during her confirmation hearing. 

“The president has stated as have predecessors at DHS certainly something that I share: There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea,” Kirstjen Nielsen said.

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