Pulitzer Center Update

The Wall Dilemma: Private Property, Border Security


Build a wall!” was one of the core slogans of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Today, the controversy over building a wall along the southern border of the United States dominates the newscycle and even prompted the longest government shutdown in the history of the country.

The wall dispute has largely been framed as a question of immigration policy and border security. Logistically, though, constructing a 1,000-mile barrier built of concrete or steel would have serious consequences for the land and property rights of thousands of Americans, as noted in the “Border Lands: The Wall’s Impact on Property Rights” panel at New America on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. The conversation featured Pulitzer Center-supported journalist Kiah Collier and attorneys Mary McCord and Ilya Somin, and was moderated by Yuliya Panfil, director of the Future of Property Rights Program at New America.

The border wall will cut through the National Butterfly Center and Nature Conservancy land, a plethora of religious sites, Native American lands, and thousands of acres of private property, according to panelists.

Yuliya Panfil, Mary McCord, Ilya Somin, and Kiah Collier. Image by Steve Sapienza. Washington, D.C., 2019.

Yuliya Panfil, Mary McCord, Ilya Somin, and Kiah Collier. Image by Steve Sapienza. Washington, D.C., 2019. 

Collier, who writes for The Texas Tribune and whose Pulitzer Center-supported project “Border Fence Land Grab” investigates past border-related land seizures conducted by the federal government, spent months interviewing those who had had their property claimed under the George W. Bush administration. Describing the process as a “botched land grab and a warning for the future,” Collier found that the land seizures were rushed and mismanaged. She also found vast disparities in how people were compensated for their property.

Price discrepancies were further cited by Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, as one of the major issues with eminent domain, or the right of the government to expropriate private property from an unwilling owner for public use. Law mandates that the government must purchase the land for a fair market value reviewed by the courts, but on the ground, eminent domain often results in “systematic undercompensation of property owners,” with the government often failing to compensate people for their “true losses.”

An apt example of this phenomenon is the current litigation surrounding the historic La Lomita Chapel in southern Texas. McCord is a senior litigator with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law School (ICAP). ICAP recently filed a motion opposing the federal government’s efforts to seize the land that La Lomita occupies.

Although the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville would receive some type of compensation, McCord said, the border wall would stand in contrast to Catholic teachings as well as cut off access to a church used for prayer on a daily basis. “A lot of people don’t realize that the wall is not just on the border. Lots of properties will be cut in half by the wall–entire housing communities and businesses will actually end up on the south side,” she said.

McCord further cited the "quick-take" provision of eminent domain that allows agencies to take private property before finalizing compensation, essentially putting landowners at a severe disadvantage when negotiating payment.

This situation is exacerbated when landowners lack the resources to hire an attorney for what will most likely be a long and costly legal battle. Collier noted that some of the negotiations from the Bush-era land grab are still ongoing.

Eliminating the "quick take" provision, increasing procedural regulation, and mandating independent appraisals were all suggestions during the panel for improving the circumstances for property owners whose lands are seized by the federal government.

Panelists also emphasized realistic timelines. According to Collier, the last time large amounts of land were claimed by the government to build border fencing, the Department of Homeland Security had only one year to build 700 miles of barrier.

This time constraint, Collier said, resulted in crucial environmental studies being neglected, haphazard payment schemes, and large financial losses for landowners.