Democrats seek answers on eminent domain action against Catholic church

Inside the historic La Lomita Chapel as seen on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Mission. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

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 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.”

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.

U.S. Custom 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.

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