Monday, April 24, 2017



EDITORIAL: Know your land rights in case of border wall land takeover

With the Trump Administration's intent to build a border wall on the Southwest border, come the potential for hundreds of landowners in the Rio Grande Valley to be affected. And while the government has the right to claim land for "national security" reasons, there are many rights that landowners also have, according to our U.S. Constitution, that can delay the process, ensure citizens are paid justly for their losses, and in some cases, successfully fight the takeover of private lands.

But most importantly, landowners must be aware of their rights and they must be prepared with how they plan to respond if, and when, the government comes calling.

Because an informed citizen will be an engaged citizen.

Informed citizens will understand that in order to take their land, the federal government must offer them "just compensation." The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution does enable the taking of private lands "for public use," through eminent domain, but only if the landowner is paid a fair price.

That's an important distinction, Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told us last week. It means that a landowner does not have to accept the first offer, especially if they believe it is not at fair market value.

"You can refuse the first offer and you have the right to bring in your own estimates," Olivares said during a news conference Wednesday at his Alamo office. And part of that estimate should include not only the price for the land they are taking, but the devaluation of the existing land that is left, he said. An example would be a farmer whose field is bisected and left unusable for its intended purpose in the future.

Olivares said letters have already gone out to many Valley residents, including some in San Benito. He said that earlier this month he went to speak to homeowners there, and one landowner told him he was unaware that he could refuse an initial offer, which he accepted but said it came in quite low.

Olivares said the offers always increase and homeowners do not have to settle for less. He said that when the government was acquiring private land, under the 2006 Secure Fences Act, to build a border fence/levee here, there was one case in which a woman had border land in her family for "several generations." She did not want to sell and was also originally offered $100. "Ultimately she got $56,000," he told us.

That case from 2008 was settled, but Olivares said there are almost 100 of the 300 cases filed at that time that still remain unresolved and are clogging the court system. Now, his nonprofit organization is offering free legal services to landowners and is trying to rally them to file cases that "could take years," he said.

"We are prepared to fight the long haul for these landowners, either through the preventing of taking (the land) entirely or if that's not possible, ensuring that the landowners receive full compensation for the value of their land," he told us.

There's no doubt that these pro bono services are being offered to politically tilt the issue: And that is to stop a border wall.

We are not advocating that. We recognize that President Donald Trump wants to build a wall and we recognize the legal footing his administration has in claiming this necessary for "national security" reasons. We do, however, urge residents and landowners to educate themselves on the process.

This includes knowing that the government must clearly communicate, in writing, exactly what pieces of land they seek; how much will be paid for each piece and what the intent is for the land — will it be used as an easement for agents to gain access to the border wall, for instance, or will concrete for a 30-foot wall be poured there.

The bottomline is that citizens must be treated with respect and the government must give them their due process.

Those who refuse offers, or cannot come to negotiable terms, have the right to request a jury trial in federal court.

Also be aware that if the federal government wants the land they can act quickly and swiftly to legally change the title into their name, once they have communicated the land, price offered and intended use and deposited the money to the landowners, they legally become title holders with the local court registry. But in order for the government to begin work on said property, they must first file a "motion for immediate possession" and if that is challenged, then that can delay the process, which can buy the landowner more time.

There are about 150 border landowners in Hidalgo County and another 150 in Cameron County; El Paso County has 300, Olivares said. His agency is offering services to all 600 and he said volunteer lawyers throughout Texas and other parts of the United States also have offered their pro bono services to help landowners fight the takeover of their property and to ensure their rights are upheld.

In 2008, all of the 300 filed cases opposing the border fence were sent to the court of U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen. Hanen is the well-known judge whose court heard the controversial DACA/DAPA case against the Obama Administration, which was sued by Texas and several other states which opposed the deferred adjudication program for immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and children of immigrants. It is uncertain whether Hanen's court would be responsible for an onslaught of new cases, especially since nearly 100 eminent domain cases from 2008 are still pending there.

We expect that the government will provide additional courts to hear the cases, as well as patience and prudence in the treatment of landowners whose lives will be uprooted and forever changed by the taking of their lands in order to build a border wall here.


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