COMMENTARY: Rep. Vela: Fight the president’s land grab on border

U.S. REP. FILEMON VELA | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

Last week, President Donald Trump stood in the Rose Garden, declared a national emergency on our country’s southern border then promptly left the White House to spend the weekend golfing at Mar-a-Lago. The national emergency declaration, which essentially bypassed Congress, is the president’s latest move to build a wall across the majority of our country’s border with Mexico.

Beyond the questions on constitutionality, which are already being challenged in the courts by 16 states, the use of eminent domain to obtain the land for the wall is something that will greatly affect the residents of the Rio Grande Valley.

Sixty-six percent of land along the border is privately owned, which is one of the main reasons I voted “no” in last week’s appropriations bill, which gave President Trump yet another down payment on his wall. The bill Congress passed will result in more than 55 miles of wall — all in Texas, and much of it in the Rio Grande Valley. But that wasn’t enough for President Trump, so if allowed to stand, his declaration will allocate more money, taken primarily money Congress approved for the U.S. military, for his wall.

I’ve long believed that a barrier is not an answer for the Rio Grande Valley, not only because of the environmental impacts such a fence would have, but also because it would trample on the property rights of many Texas families.

History shows that it is our border communities that bear the brunt of past eminent domain fights for border security. It was only in 2006 when a border wall project under President George W. Bush led to more than 300 cases of eminent domain, and more than 60 of those cases remain open today, including those with some families who have still yet to be paid by the federal government.

Dozens of landowners in the Rio Grande Valley have already received letters from the federal government seeking access to their land for soil tests, surveys and equipment storage. People like Nayda Alvarez, whose land in Rio Grande City was handed down to her by her grandfather, vow to fight. She’s refused to sign over access to her property, and as the fight over land continues, owners must know their rights.

As Alvarez told the Washington Post, “I’m against the wall because I’m going to get evicted by it.”

And Alvarez is not alone. The majority of Texans along the border don’t want further barriers constructed, especially those whose land will be forcefully taken from them. Republican support for land seizures is inconsistent with their purported belief in limited government. It seems like their opposition to expanded government only stands when it’s politically expedient.

It’s imperative we continue taking a stand against this hateful wall, and not give in to Trump’s fear-mongering and lies about immigrants and immigration. But as the elected representative of one stretch of the border in the Rio Grande Valley, I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that border voices are heard and a part of the conversation that will shape the course of our future.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, represents much of the Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast in the House of Representatives.