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Trump’s Wall Faces a Barrier in Texas: Landowner Lawsuits

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The landowners’ strategy is clear: Use the courts to forestall construction and try to outlast the tenure of Mr. Trump.

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Ms. Garcia pointing to a line on a map where, she said, the construction of a border wall was proposed.Credit Matthew Busch for The New York Times

Indeed, those closest to the perceived dangers of illegal immigration are providing perhaps the most formidable opposition to the president’s plans. They are well aware that their land has become a major point of transit for drug traffickers and smugglers, and some have been victims of crime. But they also believe that the border is already heavily patrolled, by drones, federal agents and the local authorities, and contend that a wall would have mainly a symbolic value at the cost of their land.

While Mr. Trump made a border wall central to his presidential campaign, the concept is not new. In 2006, at the urging of Congress, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated building physical structures to stop illegal crossings by people and vehicles. Nearly 700 miles of wall and fencing was ultimately built, mainly on federal land in California and Arizona.

But the government has taken very little land in Texas, which has 1,254 miles of the border with Mexico, most of it privately owned.

“Here in Texas, we take the concept of private property very seriously,” said Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district includes nearly 300 miles of the border with Mexico. “We take pride in our land, which has often been passed down for generations. And Texans stand up for ourselves when the federal government tries to take what is ours.”

Ms. Garcia’s case shows how difficult seizing private land can be. Nearly a decade ago, officials from the Department of Homeland Security tried to take parts of her land in order to build a border wall. Ms. Garcia fought back in court, and this year the government decided that it didn’t need her property after all.

But now, she thinks, Mr. Trump’s plans could again imperil her land. “We’re just waiting and watching as they start talking again about building a wall,” she said.

Mr. Trump’s proposed wall would run through a vast swath of the Rio Grande Valley. In March, the Homeland Security Department issued a request for proposals to build a “physically imposing” wall on the border with Mexico. More than 100 vendors have submitted proposals, and department officials say they may notify winning contractors as early as next week. The construction of several wall prototypes is supposed to begin in San Diego this summer.

In addition, Mr. Trump wants to hire 20 lawyers to obtain land in the Southwest on which a wall or other security facilities can be built.

The Rio Grande Valley is among the busiest smuggling routes on the Mexican border. Last year, Border Patrol agents seized 326,393 pounds of marijuana, second only to the agency’s Tucson sector. It also seized about 1,460 pounds of cocaine, the most of any sector. Nearly 187,000 illegal border crossers were apprehended here in 2016, the most of any Border Patrol sector.

In documents presented to Congress, the Border Patrol has identified the Rio Grande Valley as a priority for new border fencing.

While the government has been able to persuade some landowners to give up land for barriers and walls, many of them balked, forcing the government into court to contest what landowners considered to be the unjust taking of their property. Over 300 condemnation cases went to court, records show. In total, the government spent at least $78 million to acquire land where fencing is now in place, according to congressional documents.

Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Alamo, Tex., said the federal government was likely to face similar opposition if it tried to construct a border wall in the area again.

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A cemetery in Los Ebanos, which is part of the Rio Grande Valley. President Trump’s proposed wall would run through a vast swath of the region.Credit Matthew Busch for The New York Times

“The sheer volume of condemnations the government will have to bring will bring significant delays,” said Mr. Olivares, whose organization represents several property owners here.

For landowners like Ms. Garcia, the decision to oppose the wall was about more than money. The property where she lives has been in her family’s possession since the late 1700s. The wall, she said, would have split the land where the little park she built sits, and would cut off access to the river.

“The Border Patrol said they would have built a gate in the wall so we could access the rest of our property, but who wants to do that?” she said.

Ms. Garcia said she had seen her share of drug smuggling and people crossing the border illegally. But she said the government should increase the number of Border Patrol agents and the use of security technology in the area rather than build a wall.

Others here in the community of 300 people share her view.

“They already have walls in some spots, and it hasn’t stopped anyone,” said Veronica Mendoza, Ms. Garcia’s sister, who lives nearby. “They need more people, not more walls.”

Along the 100 miles of Texas border where a wall was constructed, property owners have been trapped in what they call a neutral zone, where some homes and property are on the south side of the wall.

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The end of a section of border fence in Hidalgo, Tex.Credit Matthew Busch for The New York Times

Jose Palomino, who lives in Los Indios, near Brownsville, said a concrete border wall bisects his property. The wall has also affected the value of the property, he said, and the government offered just $1,000.

“It’s not a nice view,” he said. “And to tell you the truth it hasn’t stopped anyone.”

While lawsuits are one obstacle to building a wall, the local geography is another, more permanent one.

The Rio Grande cuts a winding path through most of the area and spills over from the riverbed during heavy rains, prompting flooding and erosion that complicate construction.

Lawsuits and geography aside, another obstacle to the wall is bipartisan opposition from the Texas congressional delegation.

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, has questioned the effectiveness of a border wall, telling reporters, “I don’t think we’re just going to be able to solve border security with a physical barrier because people can come under, around it and through it.”

“It’s a stupid, stupid idea and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Representative Filemon Vela, Democrat of Texas, whose district includes a broad swath of the border. “We don’t need a wall with Mexico. It’s our ally and one of our largest trading partners.”

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