Land Rights and Eminent Domain on the United States-Mexico Border


Juan Cavazos at his home on Oklahoma Avenue in Brownsville, Texas. The federal government took part of the former teacher's land to build the border fence. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.

Juan Cavazos at his home on Oklahoma Avenue in Brownsville, Texas. The federal government took part of the former teacher's land to build the border fence. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.


1. Who knows what eminent domain means? Explain for the class.

2. Who do you think has the right to condemn land by eminent domain?

3. If you own the land, what do you think your rights are?

4. Do you think the government should have the right to seize private land for public use? Why?

  • What about private companies that operate public utilities like an electric company that wants to build a transmission tower?
  • What about all private companies? Should they all be treated the same? Ex: Do you think there should be a difference between a company trying to build an oil pipeline on a piece of rural land versus a company trying to tear down empty warehouses to build apartments?

5. Today you will learn more about federal eminent domain policy as it relates to the seizure of land in Texas for a border fence.


Read “The Taking” and view the accompanying video, “The Taking — Oklahoma Ave.”

As a class use the following questions to start discussion.

  1. What is the history of eminent domain law and policy in the United States?
  2. What was the rationale for building a border fence and how did this idea become federal policy?
  3. What legal and policy decisions allowed Homeland Security to sidestep federal regulations and best practices?
    • What did the agency do instead?
    • What impact did this have on border area landowners in the Rio Grande Valley?
  4. Why do water rights matter in this story?
  5. Why did some people accept the federal government’s initial offer and why did some reject it?
  6. Why did people who retained lawyers end up with larger offers for their property?
  7. How does this story connect to the current administration’s border wall policy?
    • Based on what you learned today, do you think the federal government should proceed with building the fence, build a wall, or come up with a different strategy to prevent undocumented people from crossing the United States-Mexico border?


1. According to what you read today, do states use the same eminent domain policy as the federal government? Why or why not?

2. Split into groups of two or three. One group should research federal eminent domain law and policy and the other groups should pick a state to research. Make sure one group is researching eminent domain law in your state.

  • Look into who is allowed to condemn land and why.
  • What is the process and are there loopholes?
  • Pick a recent example or case to illustrate the process.

3. Present your findings to the class.

4. Based off of your reading, research, and discussion, decide what you think is fair eminent domain policy for the federal government and the state (it could be the same or different). Explain your reasoning.

Extension Activity:

In the article and the video, a number of landowners commented that they did not know what rights they had in eminent domain cases. To prevent this from happening in your community, share the information you found with your neighbors. Here are some possible ideas of what you can do.

  1. Host an event on campus to teach people about federal and state eminent domain laws and policy. Invite local lawyers or policy makers to present on the issue too.
  2. Design a pamphlet or flyer to distribute at local community centers or legal aid clinics.
  3. Create a play, musical, or song about eminent domain to perform in the community or film it to post online.
  4. Take photographs or create art pieces that explore eminent domain issues in your community and display them at a local gallery.

Whatever you decide to do as a community activity, make sure to promote it to people in your neighborhood and that they have access to it. Do not create something that is only for your classmates or instructor.

Educator Notes: 

For the activity, do not let the federal research group use the border fence as its example. The students should choose another case of the federal government seizing land through eminent domain instead.

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