Government halts land acquisition for border wall, congressman says

Border Report Tour

South Texas land owner calls it 'great news'

Members of the No Border Wall Coalition of Laredo Texas, are seen on Oct. 20, 2020, as they block-walked south city neighborhoods to get support for opposition to the border wall. A South Texas congressman on Jan. 28, 2021, said the Biden administration has announced it will not pursue land acquisition cases for the border wall. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas congressman says the Department of Homeland Security has stopped trying to access land on the Southwest border to be used for border wall construction.

This comes after a federal judge recently inferred in a pending land lawsuit case in South Texas that it was uncertain whether the federal government would continue to pursue these land cases in court, Border Report has learned.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, on Thursday morning said he was told by officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the agency has put a pause on negotiations for acquiring land for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the 30-foot-tall metal bollard border wall.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX (Courtesy Photo)

“Today, I received notification that in compliance with President Biden’s executive order, real estate acquisition activities such as surveys and negotiations with landowners have been placed on hold in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Cuellar said.

This comes a day after all border wall construction was to have stopped along the entire Southwest border with Mexico, as ordered by President Joe Biden.

Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said he is working with the Department of Justice regarding already filed litigation and lawsuits over border wall lands. And he said he wants those cases terminated.

“I am now working with the Department of Justice to ensure that any activities associated with pending court proceeding are terminated and the civil actions are ultimately dismissed,” Cuellar said in a statement.

Melissa Cigarroa

That news was a tremendous relief to Melissa Cigarroa, a South Texas landowner in rural Zapata County who has been sued by the federal government for refusing to allow Army Corps surveyors onto her riverfront ranchlands along the Rio Grande.

“That’s fabulous,” Cigarroa told Border Report on Thursday when reached via phone. “This is great news!”

Cigarroa, who is part of the grassroots No Border Wall Coalition of Laredo said she had hoped this would be the Biden administration’s next step after Biden announced just hours after taking office that there would be a halt to border wall construction. But she said she was prepared for disappointments.

“You have these expectations because you want to believe the best but you’re always very cautious. With the past administration, we could never trust what they’d say. We have been hopeful with the Biden administration but we were still being skeptical,” Cigarroa said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Hundreds of landowners up and down the Rio Grande in South Texas have been sued by the federal government for land condemnation for failing to allow government surveyors right of entry, and for failing to relinquish their lands for the border wall.

Nayda Alvarez is a landowner in Starr County, Texas, who has been sued by the federal government for land access for the border wall. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

There have been recent indications that the government would start backing off on land acquisitions, especially after a federal court judge openly asked the question in a pending Laredo landowner’s lawsuit case regarding the right of entry to his borderlands.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kazen, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, on Jan. 22 ordered the federal government in its case against Laredo landowner Guillermo Caldera to file a supplement motion indicating “whether the United States intends to pursue this lawsuit in general and the motion for order of immediate possession in particular.”

Kazen also is requiring that the government show proof “that the United States’ negotiation position has not changed.” He has given the government’s attorneys until Feb. 3 to provide the information with the court.

The government filed a condemnation lawsuit against Caldera to access his 3.5 acres on the Rio Grande to survey for the placement of roads, fencing, border wall, security lighting, cameras and sensors. But Caldera’s lawyers have argued that since the Army Corps of Engineers has already awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a builder to construct the border wall through his property, they say the government’s request for a “temporary right of way” to evaluate the property is an “inconsistent ‘position,” and shows the federal government is not acting in good faith, according to court papers.

U.S. Border Patrol agents are seen on Nov. 21, 2019, near the construction of a border wall south of Donna, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The Trump administration secured hundreds of acres of land on the U.S.-Mexico border and built a total of 452 border wall miles prior to Donald Trump leaving office. Mark Morgan, who was acting commissioner of CBP, said before leaving that post that the federal government had obtained funds to build 300 more miles of border wall.

But securing private lands had stymied their efforts throughout Trump’s term. That forced government officials to build most of the new and replacement border barriers west in federally-owned lands in Arizona and New Mexico.

Now Cigarroa says she and other anti-border wall activists will continue to put the pressure on the Biden administration to enter into mediation “to heal the harm” that they say has been done to families in border communities that have been thrust into courtrooms and legal fights to protect their land rights.

Anti-border wall activists are seen on Oct. 17, 2020, in Laredo, Texas. Across the Rio Grande is the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Laredo was very fortunate in that we delayed and resisted as long a we could,” Cigarroa said. “But there are so many communities that have suffered so much so we’ll try to heal the harm.”

And then she said they would focus on “restoring our fully vested rights to access all of our lands,” which includes lands that have been cut off from already built border barrier structures, as well as sections of the Rio Grande, which are no longer accessible by the public.

“Our work is not finished,” Cigarroa said.

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