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Immigration Law

The Taking: Eminent Domain and The Wall

The federal government’s boldest land grab in a generation produced the first border wall — and a trail of abuse, mistakes and unfairness.

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Kiah Collier and Julián Aguilar, Texas Tribune. Illustrations by Susie Cagle, special to ProPublica.

December 14, 2017 - "Years before President Donald Trump promised to build his wall, Homeland Security erected an 18-foot-high fence here in a botched land grab that serves as a warning for the future.

An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune shows that Homeland Security cut unfair real estate deals, secretly waived legal safeguards for property owners, and ultimately abused the government’s extraordinary power to take land from private citizens.

The major findings:

  • Homeland Security circumvented laws designed to help landowners receive fair compensation. The agency did not conduct formal appraisals of targeted parcels. Instead, it issued low-ball offers based on substandard estimates of property values.
  • Larger, wealthier property owners who could afford lawyers negotiated deals that, on average, tripled the opening bids from Homeland Security. Smaller and poorer landholders took whatever the government offered — or wrung out small increases in settlements. The government conceded publicly that landowners without lawyers might wind up shortchanged, but did little to protect their interests.
  • The Justice Department bungled hundreds of condemnation cases. The agency took property without knowing the identity of the actual owners. It condemned land without researching facts as basic as property lines. Landholders spent tens of thousands of dollars to defend themselves from the government’s mistakes.
  • The government had to redo settlements with landowners after it realized it had failed to account for the valuable water rights associated with the properties, an oversight that added months to the compensation process.
  • On occasion, Homeland Security paid people for property they did not actually own. The agency did not attempt to recover the misdirected taxpayer funds, instead paying for land a second time once it determined the correct owners.
  • Nearly a decade later, scores of landowners remain tangled in lawsuits. The government has already taken their land and built the border fence. But it has not resolved claims for its value."