Policy

Don’t Mess With Texas Landowners on Border Wall, Lawmakers Warn

‘I’ve been warning people since day one, you’re gonna need a lot of lawyers’

Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, talks reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on October 11, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Two Texas lawmakers — one Republican, one Democrat — warned Homeland Security Department officials Thursday that it won’t be easy to build President Donald Trump’s border wall in the Lone Star State if private landowners have anything to say about it.

GOP Rep. John Carter, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district sits on the border with Mexico, laid out a host of reasons why landowners on the border could stifle — temporarily, at least — DHS efforts to make Trump’s hallmark campaign promise a reality.

“I’ve been warning people since day one,” Carter said at a subcommittee hearing on Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request for Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “You’re gonna need a lot of lawyers.”

Carter and Cuellar are on opposite sides of the immigration and border security debate. But Carter, a former judge, is known as a pragmatist, and Cuellar a moderate. Carter supports Trump’s border security agenda but has expressed concerns about the ability of DHS to spend its money on time. Cuellar supports tough border security but not a wall.

Both agree on the stubborn resolve of Texas landowners, some of whom are still fighting attempts by the government to build border fencing on their land that began during the George W. Bush administration. Money approved by Congress for Trump’s wall, Carter said, will be difficult to spend right away in the face of intractable Texans.

“We want to find out how we’re gonna get this thing moving,” Carter told Kevin K. McAleenan, the new commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

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Trump is requesting $1.6 billion to build 65 miles of new border barriers in fiscal 2019, doubling the $1.6 billion for new and replacement fencing included in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending law. In fiscal 2017, Congress approved $350 million to replace 40 miles of fencing in southern Texas and near San Diego.

The Defense Department also confirmed Thursday it is evaluating whether it can assist the DHS border security mission by building on a 37-mile portion of land near the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona.

Construction paid for by the 2017 omnibus is currently underway in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and near El Paso, McAleenan said. Money has already been spent on eight wall prototypes recently constructed near San Diego.

But it’s border construction funded by the 2018 law that is likely to run into trouble with landowners because the government is seeking to build where it previously had not, meaning it must acquire the land. Unlike in Arizona, New Mexico or California, much of the land along the Texas-Mexico border is privately owned.

“Unfortunately, we have to go to court sometimes,” said McAleenan, who noted the inclusion of $38 million in the 2018 omnibus spending law for planning and design that he said would be used for land acquisition cases, commonly known as eminent domain.

Cuellar said he was most concerned the process would not take into account the concerns of local stakeholders, recalling an abandoned plan in the 2000s to build a fence through the campus of the now-defunct University of Texas at Brownsville.

“My joke was, are you going to take English in Spanish or English?” quipped Cuellar.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report. 

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