US still paying for fence – Legal battles outlasted two presidents

As seen from a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter, the US-Mexico border fence stops at the side of a hill on May 11 in San Diego, California. The fence separates San Diego, California from Tijuana, Mexico (right), which is much more populated. The border spans almost 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and is intermittently fenced for some 700 miles of its total length. (AFP)

HOUSTON, May 13, (AP): Before the wall, there was the fence. And the US is still paying for it. As President Donald Trump tries to persuade a skeptical Congress to fund his proposed multibillion-dollar wall on the Mexican border, government lawyers are still settling claims with Texas landowners over a border fence approved more than a decade ago.

Two settlements were completed just this week. The legal battles over a stop-and-start fence that covers just a portion of the border have outlasted two presidents. If the Trump administration presses ahead with plans to build some version of the towering, impenetrable wall the president has promised, the government may have to take hundreds more landowners to court, perhaps even some of the same ones.

The Secure Fence Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2006 with the support of many Democratic lawmakers, set aside money for fencing to cover one-third of the roughly 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border between the US and Mexico. About 650 miles of fence were eventually built, just 100 miles of them in Texas, which has the longest border of any state with Mexico.

The uneven course of the Rio Grande, rough terrain and private land ownership created a host of engineering and legal obstacles and required hundreds of deals with individual property owners for some of their land. In the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost point of Texas where most migrants are arrested, sections of the 18-foot-tall metal fencing stop and start in neighborhoods and on farmland.

The US government can use the power of eminent domain to seize private property for a public purpose as long as it pays the landowner what the Constitution calls “just compensation,” but that process can take years if a landowner contests the seizure. The Justice Department eventually filed around 400 claims against landowners under the Secure Fence Act, though the government didn’t build on all the land it claimed.

Some landowners who have successfully resisted the fence for a decade received letters in recent months making them a new offer to settle, raising questions of whether the fence cases would pave the way for a wall. The Justice Department says it hasn’t started any cases related to a new wall and remains committed to settling around 90 cases still pending. Those cases have been bedeviled by complications and delays and have left many landowners wary of what’s coming next. One settlement completed this week was for $137,500 for about 1ó acres (about 6,000 square meters) next to the Rio Grande west of Brownsville, near a golf resort.

The US didn’t build fencing on the resort but did so on much of the land nearby. It then took nearly a decade to agree on compensation. “It is exceedingly frustrating to the landowner to have to wait nine years to resolve a case and to have the government come in and take possession of it that long before he receives so much as a single dollar,” said Ken McKay, a lawyer who represented the family partnership that owned the land. Rudy Cavazos was paid $7,000 last month for the less than a half-acre (about 2,000 square meters) taken from his property in San Benito, Texas. The government had already built a fence along a Rio Grande levee with the permission of the local water district, which was believed to own the land, only to find out that the tract actually belonged to Cavazos and about 20 other property owners. After several years of inaction on his case, Cavazos decided late last year to settle because he was tired of meeting government lawyers and going to court.

“They paid me my peanuts,” he said. “It’s the bureaucracy 10 times over. They got a guy that comes over here every so often and talks to me, and hell, you expend that in your labor coming to talk to me.” Meanwhile, the federal government said Friday that it has settled on finalists to design President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, but it won’t identify them. US Customs and Border Protection said it will notify finalists over the next several days. It won’t say how many there are, but it has said previously that it would pick up to 20 for contracts expected to be valued between $200,000 and $500,000.

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