Democrats seek answers on eminent domain action against Catholic church

La Lomita along the banks of the Rio Grande in Mission, where the proposed border wall may be built.

Four U.S. senators on Friday sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson seeking answers about the administration’s use of eminent domain against the Diocese of Brownsville.

On Oct. 25, the federal government filed a Declaration of Taking to seize properties owned by the Diocese of Brownsville that include the La Lomita Chapel and property south of the Juan Diego Academy in Mission on brushland next to the levee. But aside from seeking access for surveying purposes, the government has not told the religious organization the full extent of its border security plans on those properties, saying in a court filing that doing so is premature.

The Diocese of Brownsville is opposed to allowing the government access to its property for purposes of building a border wall or surveying for a border wall on religious grounds, saying it would be inconsistent with Catholic values and burden the Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic community.

The letter sent by New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, Illinois Democrat Senator Dick Durbin and New Mexico Democrats Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich requests transparency regarding how many religious organizations and citizens will have their land seized so President Donald Trump can build a border wall.

“The Trump Administration’s lawsuit against the Diocese raises important questions on the exercise of eminent domain to build a border wall and the impact it will have on religious organizations and American taxpayers,” the letter states. “According to a report released by the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Trump administration has been unable to provide specific information regarding how many American citizens will have their land seized, definitive real estate costs or requirements, or a timetable for completing land acquisition efforts necessary to build President Trump’s border wall.”

In the letter, the senators express concern over Trump’s previous praise of eminent domain when he called it “wonderful” and “absolutely necessary.” Trump made those comments in 2015 during a Fox News interview while campaigning.

“To this end, Democrats are requesting information from DHS regarding the specifics of how President Trump’s use of eminent domain will impact religious organizations and American citizens — including the number of organizations/people that will be affected, the costs, requirements, time table, and more — so that Congress can better understand the situation and provide oversight to protect the rights of religious organizations and Americans,” the senators said in a press release.

The senators also allege that DHS hasn’t provided Congress with a plan to consult elected officials on the eminent domain process relating to physical barriers as required by law, according to the letter.

“The federal government must exercise extreme caution when seizing private property, especially with respect to sacred sites like La Lomita Chapel. Even then, eminent domain should not be invoked in violation of any religious organization’s First Amendment right of free exercise of religion, Fifth Amendment right to just compensation for any public taking or private property, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the letter states.

The senators ask Nielson four questions in the letter, including asking how many organizations and citizens will have land seized; what the estimated real estate costs or requirements for seizures from religious organizations and citizens are; what the estimated timeline for completing land acquisition efforts necessary to build the border wall is; and asking whether DHS has waived, or plans to waive, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to build the wall.

At least one of those questions can be partially answered immediately. The DHS waiver of approximately two dozen laws published in the federal register on Oct. 11 that paved the way for DHS to start the process toward building 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County does not include the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. However, as the federal government notes in its latest court filing in the La Lomita eminent domain case, there are no cases upholding a challenge to federal condemnation on Religious Freedom Restoration Act grounds, which the Diocese of Brownsville says the government is violating.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has plans for 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County, which includes a 150-foot enforcement zone where federal authorities would remove all vegetation and install lighting and cameras. Those plans call for border wall that is expected to cut right through the Diocese of Brownsville’s property and the National Butterfly Center.

In Cameron County, DHS has requested access to SpaceX’s property for surveying purposes and a spokesperson for the company has said that it is in contact with DHS and CBP to better understand why the federal agencies want access to the property where rockets might one day be launched to Mars. The federal government is currently installing multiple gates through Cameron County to fill in gaps in existing border wall.

Meanwhile, Democrats are currently embroiled with Trump over his request for $5.7 billion for more border wall, which led Trump to partially shut the government down — now the longest partial government shutdown ever that is on day 28.