A look at the effort to build a border wall in the RGV

As 2019 comes to a close, the third anniversary of Executive Order 13767 is fast approaching.

President Donald Trump signed the directive, also known as the Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements order, on Jan. 25, 2017, just days after taking office in his first step to fulfill a campaign promise he made from Trump Tower in New York City in 2015 when he announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for president.

In that speech, Trump promised to build a wall while accusing Mexico of sending drug dealers, criminals and rapists to the United States.

He also promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. That hasn’t happened.

Instead, Congress has appropriated $1.4 billion to fund the border barrier.

So where do efforts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to build a wall in the Rio Grande Valley — the busiest region in the nation for drug trafficking and apprehensions of people crossing the Rio Grande illegally — stand?

The first indication of any real action here began in October 2018, when the Department of Homeland Security waived numerous laws so that it could construct 11 gates in gaps in existing border wall in Cameron County. That same month, the U.S. government filed a land condemnation lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville seeking right of entry to the historic La Lomita Chapel for purposes of surveying for a border wall.

These occurrences followed news that CBP also wanted to survey and eventually build a wall in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an ecologically diverse gem that attracts outdoor enthusiasts from across the country for its birding opportunities.

Since then, lawmakers in Congress were able to add protections in the last budget bill protecting the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, La Lomita Historical Park, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, within or east of the Vista del Mar Ranch tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge where SpaceX has a facility, or in the National Butterfly Center.

Both Santa Ana and the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuges are federally owned while Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is managed by the state of Texas. La Lomita and the National Butterfly Center are privately owned, much like the rest of the parcels of land that hug the Rio Grande as it winds through Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties before spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico.

And private property has slowed CBP’s efforts to build border wall in the Rio Grande Valley as directed by Trump on Jan. 25, 2017.

Since November 2018, the federal government has filed 19 land condemnation lawsuits against property owners in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties seeking access to just over 570 acres of land for the purposes of surveying for the planned construction of a border wall.

Of those lawsuits, the government filed its first actual declaration of taking against two properties this month.

One of those cases is against Frank Schuster Farms and El Sabino Family Farms for a total of 23.311 acres. The government has deposited $310,873 as just compensation for the land in the court’s registry. The defendants have not yet filed an answer.

In the other case, the government is seeking just over 6 acres in a case that involves 91 defendants. The government has deposited $25,000 into the court’s registry as just compensation and none of the defendants have yet filed an answer.

Seven of these cases are resolved, with owners granting the government a right of entry for surveying purposes. The government has paid out just $1,025 to defendants involved in six of those cases while the seventh just allowed the government entry. In one case that involved numerous defendants, the government paid out $350 to a principal landowner and split $175 between 44 people for $3.99 apiece, according to court records.

Nine of these cases are currently in litigation with the vast majority being in Hidalgo County, including the actual takings. In one case in Starr County, the government has been unable to locate the landowner.

However, more land condemnation lawsuits could be in the works.

In June, CBP sent letters to residents in Brownsville’s River Bend Resort & Golf Club that it intends to build border wall in the area in early 2020, a statement echoed in CBP’s most recent border wall contract announcement at the end of September.

In a news release, CBP said that in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it awarded three contracts to construct approximately 65 miles of new border wall in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties.

“Construction is anticipated to begin in early 2020, pending availability of real estate, and will take place in locations where no barriers currently exist,” CBP said in a news release.

That pending real estate is likely the target of land condemnation lawsuits filed by the government.

These plans include approximately 21 miles of border wall in Starr County to be built by Southern Border Constructors for a base contract amount of $120,412,400 with a total contract value of $257,808,800.

“The project area begins west of Falcon Dam Port of Entry and extends eastward, in five non-contiguous segments, which will connect to other new border wall segments,” the release stated.

Southern Border Constructors received another contract for border wall in Starr and Hidalgo counties for 22 miles of wall with a base contract of $110,022,700 with a total contract value of $258,085,400, with the project beginning east of Rio Grande City Port of Entry and extending eastward in two non-contiguous segments that will connect to new border wall segments, according to CBP.

Lastly, CBP awarded a contract to Gibralter-Caddell Joint Venture for 22 miles of border wall in Cameron and Hidalgo counties for a base contract amount of $155,269,991 and a total contract value of $296,709,805.

“The project area begins east of the Pharr Port of Entry and extends eastward, in 12 non-contiguous segments, which will connect to other new border wall segments,” according to CBP.

So is there any new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley?

The answer is yes, but not much.

CBP began installing the first panels of new border wall here on Nov. 1 in the Donna area, which acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf visited at the end of November.

CBP awarded this construct to SLSCO in the amount of $167 million on Nov. 14, 2018, nearly a year before actual construction began.

This section of border wall is planned for 8 miles in five segments south of Donna, Alamo, Weslaco, Progreso and Mercedes.

When it awarded the contract, CBP said construction would begin in February 2018.

Despite continued delays three years into CBP’s efforts to fulfill Executive Order 13767 that have been hindered by private property rights, outcry from local residents trying to protect wildlife refuges, cemeteries and a historic chapel, and by lawmakers across the country, the border agency has set an aggressive goal for building new border wall, according to a Dec. 17 Reuters report.

“Our goal at the end of 2020 was 450 miles,” CBP acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters recently, according to Reuters. “It’s hard right now to be able to say whether we’re still going to be able to meet that goal, but I’m confident that we’re going to be close.”