By Karla Marisol Vargas & Ricky A. Garza, TCRP Attorneys
“Now that President Biden stated that construction of the border wall stop, my family wants the lawsuit for our land that has been in our family for generations to be immediately dismissed forever. Please consider my elderly sister and brother with disabilities who depend on this land for their livelihoods.” –Baudilia Cavazos Rodriguez, Resident of McAllen, TX, and TCRP Client
Border wall construction sites went quiet last week in the Rio Grande Valley for the first time in years—but only temporarily. Although President Biden signed a Proclamation temporarily halting construction on Inauguration Day, hundreds of South Texas families, like the Cavazos family of Mission, TX, must continue to defend their homes while a pandemic rages on. As of today, border wall construction is paused but not permanently cancelled, and over 150 eminent domain lawsuits remain open on the federal docket.
All of this may surprise you, given recent statements by Members of Congress who are oversimplifying the reality on the ground. But, unfortunately for our clients and every family still in the path of the wall, the limitations of this Proclamation are all too clear. After fighting the wall for four years (and sometimes twelve), South Texas families are confused and anxious, left not knowing whether, at the end of the Proclamation’s 60-day period intended to “develop a plan for the redirection of funds concerning the southern border wall,” President Biden will follow through on his promise to “withdraw the suits.”.
Because the Proclamation did not explicitly mention the 215+ lawsuits filed under the Trump Administration, the order is open to interpretation. Every suit is being evaluated by Biden’s Department of Justice on a case-by-case basis. Rather than returning land to the communities from where it came and closing the cases, government attorneys are asking for a simple 60-day pause, seeking to extend deadlines while making no commitment to what comes next.
Even if President Biden were to order an immediate dismissal of cases related to the physical border wall, the “virtual wall” and the threat of all the militarization that comes with it makes it hard for families to breathe a sigh of relief. Our clients know from experience that during this period of review, the government could still decide to take their land and build destructive 100 foot tall surveillance towers, 24-7 flood lamp lighting, and all-terrain roads tearing through the landscape.
Sadly, some of our clients in Hidalgo County, the border wall is nearly complete in their backyard. Despite this, they have still not been paid “just compensation,” and flawed laws mean they may not see fair payment for months or years. Through this pandemic and likely after, our clients will have to continue with court dates and continue to negotiate with groups of government officials on their property, until the government’s case against them is resolved. Trump’s legacy on the border wall, at least for now, is very well intact under the Biden Administration.
The tragedy here is that it doesn’t have to be this way. President Biden can permanently suspend all wall construction and order the Department of Justice to dismiss all lawsuits, return lands taken under the lawsuits, as well as cancel all contracts. This is the first step to rebuild the border communities, including the Rio Grande Valley, that have been destroyed under Trump and so many other administrations. In the flowchart below, we’ve mapped out how to do it, zeroing in on all the twists and turns of the legal process.
If it looks complicated, that’s because it is – but the solution is not. The families of South Texas need and deserve immediate relief. President Biden can and should declare a permanent stop to the wall and only then can he begin to fulfill his promise to border communities to build back better.