With Steel or Surveillance, Biden May Fill “Gaps” in Trump’s Border Wall

Reynaldo “Rey” Anzaldua Cavazos believes the Biden administration is going to use six acres of his family’s land in Hidalgo County in South Texas to fill a gap left in former President Donald Trump’s border wall. Whether the new barrier will be physical or technological, he can only guess.

The U.S. government seized the land from the Cavazos family in April after the Biden administration failed to dismiss a Trump-era eminent domain case, which allows the federal government to seize private land for public use. Administration officials said they didn’t drop the case because they are still conducting a review of federal resources used to build the wall. The review was supposed to be finished by March 20, but officials still haven’t given a timeline for its completion.

The family has been pressuring the administration to return their land since it was taken last month, but Anzaldua Cavazos says he hasn’t heard from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since the George W. Bush-appointed judge, Micaela Alvarez of the Southern District of Texas, granted Department of Justice’s (DOJ) request to seize the land. Cavazos’s family has been left to wonder whether the president is intentionally breaking his promises in order to fill a gap in the border wall, which abuts their property on either side.

This is not the first time the Cavazos have fought the federal government over land that’s been in their family since the 1950s: The family fought the Obama and Bush administrations before going to court against the Trump’s attempt to seize part of their 77-acre ranch for the more than 400 miles of wall his administration built along the southern border.

Meanwhile, other families with pending land condemnation cases are being left in legal limbo, facing impending decisions of whether to accept the federal government’s offers of compensation for their land, or continuing their costly legal fights in the hopes that the Biden administration could drop still-pending cases and return the land to property owners, a process called revestment.

Biden promised months before the November election that his administration would not build “another foot of wall” and would end eminent domain cases brought under the Trump administration. “End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” Biden told NPR in August.

But about 130 eminent domain cases remain active in the Texas’s southern district court, including some cases dating from the Bush era. According to the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), which represents the Cavazos and other landowners, the vast majority of those cases have progressed in some way since March 21. In some, property is still being reviewed. Others are farther along, with the federal government offering compensation for property that seized under Trump.

“If the Biden administration really wanted to cancel this and dismiss all the suits, they would have done that from day one, so I don’t fully understand why they’ve left this little ticking time bomb kind of just going,” says TCRP Community Outreach Coordinator Roberto Lopez. He says that while the White House has reached out indicating the seizure of the Cavazos’s land was not intentional, after more than six weeks, officials’ lack of action could portend that “another foot of wall” may indeed be built under Biden’s administration.

Biden’s Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has said as much. Mayorkas told Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees in April that Biden’s decision to cancel the declaration of a border emergency and halt Pentagon funds flowing to the wall, “leaves room to make decisions” on finishing some “gaps in the wall.” The DOJ has said the same, writing in another eminent domain case last month that the president’s inauguration day proclamation and ongoing review of border wall-directed resources “left open the possibility that some aspects of the project may resume.”

More recently, attorneys for the government announced a framework for categorizing pending eminent domain cases, and said that they still don’t know whether the Biden administration wants to drop the lawsuits altogether or move forward with seizing some land for border security projects including roads and surveillance towers. Many of those projects could become part of the administration’s plans to accelerate a “smart” wall powered by biometric data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, aerial drones, infrared cameras, motion sensors and radar.

The Cavazos say that just as they are opposed to a physical border barrier, they also don’t want to see technology for a “virtual” wall on their property. “No wall is necessary on the southern border. Immigration is something that’s natural…. These walls, whether they’re virtual walls or whether they’re physical walls, they’re all symbols of hate and racism,” Anzaldua Cavazos says. “We’re trying to tell [Biden], through the news media and directly, to keep his word.”

A Levee Repair or a Wall?

For the time being, construction on the southern border wall remains paused while agencies develop a plan for the president on the management of the federal funds. In late April, the Biden administration said it would return to the Pentagon billions in funds diverted by former President Trump for the wall, and would cancel all related construction contracts. At the same time, the administration announced it would launch a project to fill holes in the Rio Grande Valley levee system left by border wall construction.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Army Corps of Engineers have already begun repairing the levee system along the southern border that provides flood protection for residents like the Cavazos in low-lying Hidalgo County. The DHS attributed the damage to Trump administration’s border wall construction, which DHS said “blew large holes” in the levees.

But the levee repairs themselves have become political, says TCRP’s Lopez, as local and DHS officials raise concerns ahead of hurricane season, something he says he doesn’t remember happening under Trump.

“What appears to be happening is that I think [DHS has] decided not to restore [the levee] back to its original condition of just a smooth, earthen dam, but to repair the whole levee with this sort of concrete wall design, so just a sheer concrete drop on the south side, a smooth earthen dam on the north side,” Lopez tells Truthout. “But that is something we’re very concerned about because it’s still a wall.”

As the federal government goes in circles tearing down the levee system only to once again reinforce gaps with concrete, Lopez says, it’s not spending the true resources needed for drainage projects to address flooding, which happens nearly annually in the Rio Grande Valley.

It’s a pattern more than a decade in the making: In 2008, Hidalgo County used $48.2 million in bond money that was supposed to be for drainage projects to instead supplement combined levee-border wall construction so that county drainage district director Godfrey Garza could skim millions off the top in a kickback scheme.

Thirteen years later, the levee system is still being repaired. The current reconstruction effort, Lopez says “placates the Republicans or the conservatives because it looks like a wall, it’s a vertical sheer bit of concrete that’s like 12, 15 feet high. But to local officials, Democrats, it is an infrastructure improvement that modernizes the levee.”

But the sheer concrete drop-off not only closes off migration paths for endangered animals like ocelots, it also complicates crossings for landowners. Anzaldua Cavazos tells Truthout that while DHS has begun levee repairs on land east of the family’s property, levee work hasn’t yet begun on the six acres of his family’s land now in possession of the federal government. The levees that support Trump’s bollard border barriers on either side of the Cavazos’s property are sheer drop-offs, and Anzaldua Cavazos expects the levee on his land will soon look the same. Moreover, Cavazos is concerned that the wall segments on either side of the Cavazos’s property are going to lead to increased erosion and the loss of several more acres of his family’s own land, as barriers accelerate water flows.

“It just rained probably about four or five inches today down there, and there’s going to be a lot of erosion. I wouldn’t be surprised if [a neighboring, private wall segment] goes into the river soon,” he says. “We’re losing land to the government and losing land to this private wall too.”

In some cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Smith III told U.S. District Judge Randy Crane in early May, land with earthen levees adjacent to land where the government built concrete-reinforced levees as part of the border wall project, like the Cavazos’s land, may be returned to property owners. In others, Smith III said, the government may keep the land to build access roads for Border Patrol.

“The federal government may want to seize these properties so they can tear parts of the levee to make roads to put up their towers to do whatever they need to surveil, to be able to build a web, some sort of technology-based wall,” Lopez says. “Both parties, everyone has been pushing for virtual construction, for a cyber wall, and they still need to seize properties for that purpose, so I think they’re figure out how to do that.”

Irreparable Damage

Since the Cavazos’s case is technically not closed yet, as attorneys work toward a just compensation offer, it’s still possible for the government to revest the family’s land. Other families whose land was seized under Trump are in the same position, Lopez tells Truthout. For those families, the choice is between continuing the costly fight to keep their cases open or take the government’s compensation offers. If a family takes an offer, their case will close, making it harder for the Biden administration to reopen the case and revest the land.

“The [families are] in this very awkward position where they could be tired, they could accept the government’s offer, give up their land, and then the day after, Biden says, ‘Oh, we’re going to revest it to everybody,’ but because they closed their case, it’s much more likely that they just won’t be able to get their land back at all,” Lopez says. “So there’s elements of irreparability which we’re seeing play out over time.”

As deadlines to accept government offers loom, the question of the Biden’s administration’s plans for the remaining land condemnation cases they’ve already categorized has become increasingly urgent. Landowners and their attorneys are beginning to turn to the DOJ, rather than the White House or locally elected representatives, for answers.

“We are kind of understanding now that maybe, trying to make overtures with the White House is not seeming to work, so the next thing is to see if DOJ officials can give us more transparency and clarity on what’s going on — where are they going to have revestment, where are they not,” Lopez says.

As the Biden administration continues to keep in place Trump’s Title 42 program, effectively closing the border to most refugees with no due process or court date, the administration’s next moves on Trump’s biggest symbol of anti-immigrant racism, the border wall, threaten to damage the president’s promises to enact a more humanitarian immigration system.

“All of this stuff here is political, when the government takes land, it’s supposed to be for the need of the country. This is not for the need of the country; this is a political thing,” Anzaldua Cavazos says. “They’re violating our civil rights. They’re violating our due process rights.”