Texas landowners in limbo during 60-day pause in border-wall construction

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Community leaders asking Biden administration to make stoppage permanent, restore land and hold public forums

This graphic is from the website of the nonprofit organization Texas Civil Rights Project, which is sending a letter to President Joe Biden on what South Texas communities want to happen regarding border wall construction, land cases and built segments. (Courtesy graphic)

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Hundreds of South Texas families who own land along the border are in limbo during the Biden administration’s 60-day pause on border wall construction.

Some have had their land cases dismissed while others are delayed several weeks. In the meantime, community leaders are asking the Biden administration to relate to the predicament these border families are in — some having paid thousands of dollars for lawyers to represent them, as well as the emotional toil expensed fighting to hold on to their lands.

The nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project on Thursday is expected to send President Joe Biden and new Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas a letter with some very pointed requests that they hope will further educate those in Washington, D.C., as to what is actually happening on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Trump administration built over 450 miles of new border wall along the Southwest border, including many miles in South Texas such as this new span on South 23rd Street in McAllen. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The letter praises Biden’s executive order halting construction on the border wall but urges him to consider making the following promises:

  • Hold public forums with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and allow the community to explain how it wants border-related projects “repurposed.”
  • Immediately cancel all border wall contracts.
  • Permanently suspend all border wall construction.
  • Take down existing border walls, including virtual technology.
  • Return seized property to the communities “especially historically disenfranchised people and Indigenous people.”
  • Form a commission “to provide recommendations on the true safety needs of border communities such as those involving healthcare, infrastructure and a healthy environment.”
  • Give money to remedy “the harmful effects of border wall construction on cultural and environmental sites along the border, including Indigenous gravesites, lands, and demolished stretches of RGV habitat home to endangered species,” the letter says.
Texas Civil Rights Project Racial & Economic Justice Outreach Coordinator Roberto Lopez

“Each of these recommendations is meant to remedy the harms done unto border communities in the past. We believe they will also grant you time and opportunity to listen to us before making decisions about us, particularly those which will make us less safe,” the letter says.

“This is a letter from the community. These are ideas, thoughts on everything that has been bubbling up,” Texas Civil Rights Project Racial & Economic Justice Outreach Coordinator Roberto Lopez said during a Facebook Live event on Saturday to solicit community input for the letter.

Lopez says they hope “to explain who we are as a community” to the incoming Biden administration as they study border issues.

Just hours after taking office on Jan. 20, Biden ordered an immediate pause in all border wall construction to allow a close review of the legality of the funding and contracting methods.

Juan Ruiz of the No Border Wall Laredo Coalition is seen block-walking on Oct. 17, 2020, in Laredo, Texas, riverfront neighborhoods against a border wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The pause has resulted in federal prosecutors withdrawing at least seven land condemnation cases in the Laredo, Texas, area, Juan Ruiz of the No Border Wall Coalition told Border Report.

But seven cases still remain active with hearings currently scheduled for the end of March or later.

Ruiz said that is causing angst for border families who must continue with this uncertainty about what will happen to their lands for several more weeks.

“There’s no immediate threat but I think in the long term there needs to be kept an eye on what’s happening because it’s not over yet,” Ruiz said.

The good news, he said, is that the last land condemnation case filed in federal court in Laredo was Jan. 12.

“I’m very hopeful that after the 60-day review period there’s going to be a really drastic change in policy no longer kind of viewing the wall as this must-have and looking at other alternatives, not necessarily hyper-militarized, but an approach that benefits people and puts the news of people first and that means no land condemnation and no destruction of public property,” Ruiz said.

There were concerns after several land condemnation notices were printed Feb. 3 in The Monitor newspaper regarding riverfront properties in Starr County, eight for which the federal government could not find landowners. But Ruiz says upon examination of those cases, they were all filed on Jan. 19, a day before Donald Trump left office. And none have been filed since.

The federal government had filed 35 lawsuits against landowners in Webb and Zapata counties, and dozens against landowners in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley.

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