Trump Is Gone, but Land Disputes Along Border Continue Under Biden

A Texas judge allowed the government this week to take possession of a family’s land because the Biden administration has yet to end lawsuits seeking property along the border.,

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WASHINGTON — After battling for years against the Trump administration’s plan to seize some of their family’s land in South Texas to build a border wall, the Cavazos siblings believed the inauguration of President Biden would bring a successful end to their fight.

Mr. Biden had campaigned against the wall, promised a plan to resolve the legal wrangling with property owners and halted construction on his first day in office.

“When he first became president, he said no more wall,” said Jose Alfredo Cavazos, who owns the land along the Rio Grande in Mission. “A godsend, I said to myself. He’s going to help us.”

But on Tuesday, with the Biden administration having missed a self-imposed deadline for sorting out the tangled legal situation, a federal judge granted “immediate possession” of a portion of the family’s land to the government.

“It appears President Biden did not keep his word,” said Baudilia Cavazos Rodriguez, 68, Mr. Alfredo Cavazos’s sister.

The action appeared to be a result of a bureaucratic failure rather than any kind of policy choice by the new administration, and so far it appears to be the only case of private land being taken since Mr. Biden took office. But more than 140 other landowners in South Texas are still facing lawsuits initiated by Mr. Trump and are waiting to see if they will face the same fate as the Cavazos family.

The White House referred questions about the judge’s decision to the Justice Department, which in turn cited a court filing in which the Biden administration said it could stop seeking the land after finishing a review of the Trump administration’s border wall policies. That review was supposed to be completed within 60 days but is now weeks overdue.

Abdullah Hasan, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, attributed the delay of the release of Mr. Biden’s border wall plan to the complexities created by the various lawsuits filed against the Trump administration for redirecting billions of dollars from the Defense Department and waiving environmental laws to speed construction of the wall.

“Under those circumstances, federal agencies are continuing to develop a plan to submit to the president soon,” Mr. Hasan said.

It is not clear whether what happened to the Cavazos family could happen to others seeking to avoid losing their land. The family was among hundreds of landowners in South Texas sued by the Trump administration after refusing to voluntarily give up portions of their private property for construction of the wall championed by President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Alfredo Cavazos, who uses a wheelchair, worried that building the wall would make it difficult for him to move around the property and discourage visitors from renting the small homes on the property, the family’s main source of income.

The Cavazos family had rejected an offer of more than $300,000 from the Trump administration, believing it would tarnish land that they have had for nearly 70 years, bought by their grandmother with money she made selling tamales and tortillas.

The ruling adds to the toll of Mr. Trump’s pursuit of a border wall, but under the watch of a successor who campaigned against him in part by criticizing it.

ImageMembers of the Cavazos family last year. They are among hundreds of landowners in South Texas sued by the Trump administration after refusing to voluntarily give up portions of their private property.
Members of the Cavazos family last year. They are among hundreds of landowners in South Texas sued by the Trump administration after refusing to voluntarily give up portions of their private property.Credit…via Baudilia Cavazos

As a candidate, Mr. Biden asserted there “not be another foot of wall” and said his Justice Department would halt lawsuits against landowners.

“Stop, done, over. Not going to do it,” Mr. Biden told NPR in August when asked about the eminent domain lawsuits to seize property for the wall. “Withdraw the lawsuits, we’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land.”

In his proclamation on Jan. 20 suspending construction, Mr. Biden suspended construction on the border wall. He did not, however, immediately dismiss the litigation against the landowners but rather delayed it as officials developed a plan on what to do with the resources Mr. Trump dedicated to the wall.

In February, Ryan K. Patrick, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Texas, filed a motion stating that the plan on the future of the project ordered by Mr. Biden could end the government’s pursuit of the land owned by the Cavazos family. The Trump administration had already obtained the title for the land but still needed the court to grant it full possession to freely have access to it.

“If possession is no longer necessary once the aforementioned plan is developed, the United States will withdraw its pending motion for possession,” Mr. Patrick said in the motion.

But 85 days after Mr. Biden took office, the plan has yet to be released.

Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, represents many of the landowners who are disputing government efforts to take their land. He sent letters to the Biden transition in December and to the administration in March asking for a halt to the construction of the wall and dismissal of the lawsuits against landowners.

“I wish they would have taken some input from people who kind of know these issues,” Mr. Cuellar said. “Whatever attorney put this together for the president didn’t understand the full comprehensive steps that should’ve been added in that proclamation.”

Mr. Cuellar also said he had spoken to officials in the U.S. attorney’s office in Texas, who told him they would continue to pursue litigation against landowners until they received new guidance from the administration.

Judge Micaela Alvarez of Federal District Court of the Southern District of Texas on Tuesday ordered that more than six acres of the Cavazos land be turned over to the government. That is only about 10 percent of the overall property, but it is a strip that would divide the family from the small rental homes they own close to the Rio Grande.

Ricky Garza, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project, described the ruling as significant because the United States could move forward with building roads for the Border Patrol or towers and scanners to detect migrants. Mr. Biden has supported such investments into technology at the border.

“He betrayed his campaign promise to the people of the border to dismiss all of these cases,” Mr. Garza said. “They’re seizing the land and they refuse to withdraw these cases.”

Mr. Garza questioned whether the administration would take action on the other roughly 140 cases against landowners in South Texas.

He said the administration could easily go to the courts to seek a return of the land to the owners. But some landowners in South Texas are still fighting seizure lawsuits from the Bush administration.

“Everybody who lives in the path of the wall should be very worried right now,” Mr. Garza said. “We need to see movement from the administration. Because without that this land has been lost.”

Mr. Biden has directed Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, to develop a plan for how to use resources allocated to the wall by the Trump administration, including “terminating or repurposing contracts.” The Biden administration would most likely have to pay fees for canceling such agreements.

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President Biden had campaigned against the wall, promised a plan to resolve the legal wrangling with property owners and halted construction on his first day in office.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Department of Homeland Security still has more than $2 billion in unobligated funding for infrastructure at the border wall, money that could be spent on technology or roads, according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The funds include the more than $1.3 billion that Congress appropriated last December.

Reynaldo Anzaldua, a cousin of the Cavazos family, said he knew better than to trust the federal government when it came to land seizures. He was forced to go to court to protect his own property, also along the border in South Texas, after the Bush administration passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006. He lost a portion of his land.

“We’re treated differently than other people,” Mr. Anzaldua said. “They’ve taken our due process away from us.”

Landowners in Texas became one of the tallest hurdles to Mr. Trump’s border wall construction.

The Cavazos family is now once again in limbo, wondering what will happen to the land where cattle roam and visitors pay to water-ski or boat in the Rio Grande.

“It’s still just like a waiting game,” Mr. Cavazos said as he sat on land he could no longer call his own.

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