BROWNSVILLE — The land agents started working the border between Texas and Mexico in the spring of 2007. Sometimes they were representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Other times they were officers from the U.S. Border Patrol, uniformed in green, guns tucked into side holsters. They visited tumbledown mobile homes and suburban houses with golf course views. They surveyed farms fecund with sugar cane, cotton and sorghum growing by the mud-brown Rio Grande. They delivered their blunt news to ranchers and farmers, sheet metal workers and university professors, auto mechanics and wealthy developers.
The federal government was going to build a fence to keep out drug smugglers and immigrants crossing into the United States illegally, they told property owners. The structure was going to cut straight across their land. The government would make a fair offer to buy property, the agents explained. That was the law. But if the owners didn't want to sell, the next step was federal court. U.S. attorneys would file a lawsuit to seize it. One way or the other, the government would get the land. That, too, was the law.
The visits launched the most aggressive seizure of private land by the federal government in decades. In less than a year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security filed more than 360 eminent domain lawsuits against property owners, involving thousands of acres of land in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Most of the seized land ran along the Rio Grande, which forms the border between Texas and Mexico. All told, the agency paid $18.2 million to accumulate a ribbon of land occupying almost half the length of the 120 miles of the Rio Grande Valley in southernmost Texas.
Years before President Donald Trump promised to build his wall, Homeland Security erected an 18-foot-high fence here in a botched land grab that serves as a warning for the future.
An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune shows that Homeland Security cut unfair real estate deals, secretly waived legal safeguards for property owners, and ultimately abused the government's extraordinary power to take land from private citizens.
The major findings:
- Homeland Security circumvented laws designed to help landowners receive fair compensation. The agency did not conduct formal appraisals of targeted parcels. Instead, it issued low-ball offers based on substandard estimates of property values.
- Larger, wealthier property owners who could afford lawyers negotiated deals that, on average, tripled the opening bids from Homeland Security. Smaller and poorer landholders took whatever the government offered — or wrung out small increases in settlements. The government conceded publicly that landowners without lawyers might wind up shortchanged, but did little to protect their interests.
- The Justice Department bungled hundreds of condemnation cases. The agency took property without knowing the identity of the actual owners. It condemned land without researching facts as basic as property lines. Landholders spent tens of thousands of dollars to defend themselves from the government's mistakes.
- The government had to redo settlements with landowners after it realized it had failed to account for the valuable water rights associated with the properties, an oversight that added months to the compensation process.
- On occasion, Homeland Security paid people for property they did not actually own. The agency did not attempt to recover the misdirected taxpayer funds, instead paying for land a second time once it determined the correct owners.
- Nearly a decade later, scores of landowners remain tangled in lawsuits. The government has already taken their land and built the border fence. But it has not resolved claims for its value.
The errors and disparities played out family by family, block by block, county by county, up and down the length of the border fence.