Story

Finding Border Landowners Was Harder Than Expected

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Julián Aguilar reporting near the border fence in Cameron County, Texas. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.

Julián Aguilar reporting near the border fence in Cameron County, Texas. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.

As President Trump is trying to keep his promise to build a “big, beautiful” wall on the southern border, Texans know their home turf is ground zero in what could be a lengthy battle over private property rights. They know that because the stage was set 10 years ago when another Republican president championed building a double-layer barrier over some 700 miles of borderland, including huge swaths in Texas.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune ventured to get to the bottom of two main issues: Why were some landowners paid more than others? And why were several cases still pending nearly a decade later?

We planned for our trip to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley—where most of the fence was built—by narrowing down the hundreds of cases to several dozen we thought were the most compelling. From there we reached out and tried to contact as many of the landowners that were directly affected by the fence's construction as we could.

We encountered some people who were happy to talk about their experiences; they offered to take us on their land and explain, in detail, what happened with their cases and how long it took, among other things. Most of them said they were doing what they felt was their patriotic duty to sell the government their land in order to help secure the country's borders.

Others weren't happy at all to see a group of reporters. Some of them thought they had been burned by other media outlets prior to our visit and had had enough by then. Others simply wouldn't talk to us at all.

You can't blame them too much, however. They've been going through the process for almost 10 years and were exhausted by it. And still others seemed annoyed at having to revisit everything, but they opened up a bit more once we started talking about the story and what we were trying to accomplish.

There were several additional challenges. Some landowners had passed away, while other properties were part of an estate and the executors weren’t able to provide much detail. Some landowners directed us to their attorneys, who in turn declined to talk.

What was surprising to me was how some people couldn't—or said they couldn't—remember the details of their cases. Some folks were even a little fuzzy on how much they were paid.

I would have preferred to include more voices in the final project. There are some people who were flat-out ripped off because they didn't know any better. That is, they trusted the government to pay what was fair but got less (a lot less) than what some of their neighbors got. There was one family who got very, very little and, if our address searches were correct, lived in a very run-down part of town. I wish we had been able to contact those people and add their voices to our story.