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President Trump has of course promised to build a wall along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. A third of that border already has a barrier thanks to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed by then-President George W. Bush. That initiative has upset landowners near the Rio Grande. Hundreds of lawsuits have ended up in federal court. If the wall goes forward as Trump promises, more lawsuits may be coming, as NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Out on the western border between the U.S. and Mexico, straight line fencing cuts through public lands and big ranches. But down in south Texas, the imposing rust-colored barrier runs into a thicket of private property rights. Irate landowners along the river have protested what they call a government land grab to install the controversial fence. Their cases have landed before U.S. District Judge Andy Hanen of Brownsville.
ANDY HANEN: I'm the fence judge.
BURNETT: In 2006, President Bush, who appointed Hanen, signed the law ordering the erection of 700 miles of physical barriers along the border. Unlike the sparser population upriver, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is dense with people and history. Some of the acreage goes back to Spanish land grants.
In order to purchase property rights for the construction, Border Patrol had to contact landowners near the Serpentine River. Most of them settled out of court, but other cases have gotten into the weeds. Some landowners want more money. Some want a gate in the fence to be able to access their land on the other side. In other cases, Hanen says government lawyers ran into complex family trees.
HANEN: And so finding out even who owns the land that's being condemned has been a real problem for the government.
BURNETT: When negotiations fail, the Justice Department sues. In all, 320 eminent domain cases have ended up in Hanen's court. The judge has made national news as an outspoken critic of President Obama's more lenient immigration policies. This is the first interview he's given on the years-long legal morass surrounding the border fence.
HANEN: You have to realize; these are everyday people living their ordinary life. And all of a sudden, the government knocks on their door and says, (laughter) we want your backyard. I mean all of a sudden it's - they're facing the might of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, and all of a sudden they're a defendant in a lawsuit through no fault of their own.
BURNETT: The 63-year-old judge grew up in central Texas, but he knows the border. His daughter was baptized in the Rio Grande. On several occasions, Hanen even left the courthouse to inspect the contested borderlands firsthand while his U.S. Marshal escort worried about drug violence in the region.
One of the properties Hanen walked belongs to Eloisa Tamez, 81, perhaps the valley's loudest fence opponent. The 18-foot-tall barricade bisects her three acres in the community of Calaboz west of Brownsville. On a recent warm afternoon, she walks over to a keypad mounted on the fence.
ELOISA TAMEZ: Well, in order for me to move around in the rest of my property, that which is south of the wall, I have to insert a code so that this monstrous gate can open. And then I can go through.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE OPENING)
BURNETT: The iron gateway rolls away, giving Tamez access to the other half of her ancestral property choked with cactus and mesquite. Her case, styled USA versus .26 Acres of Land, dragged on in Hanen's court for seven years. She knew how it would end. In federal condemnation cases, whether for dams, highways or national parks, the government almost always wins. Ultimately, Tamez got a check for $56,000 for the quarter acre under the fence and the inconvenience. Sitting in her office at the University of Texas at Brownsville where she's a professor of nursing, she's still not satisfied.
TAMEZ: I wasn't looking for the money. I don't want to lose the land. I want the land back. I don't believe in the barriers.
BURNETT: NPR looked at the more-than-300 fence cases in Hanen's court. Two-thirds of them have been resolved. Most took about three and a half years, and most were under an acre. The median settlement works out to $12,600. On the high end, the Nature Conservancy got $1.1 million for eight acres.
Not everybody ended up in court. An 84-year-old retired schoolteacher named Arnaldo Farias lives next to Eloisa Tamez. He was happy to accept the government's offer of $8,000, though he says they still haven't paid him for years later. Unlike his firebrand neighbor, Mr. Farias says he's glad to have the steel barrier running through his backyard. He says it stops unauthorized immigrants from walking across his property and taking showers in his outbuilding.
ARNALDO FARIAS: I wanted to sell because I wanted security. In other words, you don't know what kind of people are coming. That's the bottom line.
BURNETT: Large federal land acquisition projects typically take years. Today, 91 of the landowner cases in South Texas remain open, and even more are expected. When Trump signed his executive order last month calling for his big, beautiful wall, down in Brownsville, the fence judge knew what that would mean.
HANEN: What I thought was, oh, this is going to be a lot more work for us. And it's going to be a lot of headache. I mean the people in south Texas - there are a lot of hard feelings about the wall.
BURNETT: Details of this next phase of the border wall are unclear. For instance, there's no word if the federal government is trying to get Mexico to reimburse it to pay for the land along the Rio Grande. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Eloisa Tamez is a professor at the University of Texas, Brownsville. She is actually at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.]
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