President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall expansion could mean many more legal cases regarding how landowners should be compensated for the government condemning their property to house parts of the barrier.
The main person in charge of deciding those cases is United States District Judge Andy Hanen, based in Brownsville. He’s presided over hundreds of border fence cases over the past decade, but he’s rarely spoken about his job.
“The constitution says that if the government wants to come in and take your land, they have to pay you for it,” Burnett says. “If they want to come in and condemn it, they offer you what they think it’s worth and that starts the process.”
But many south Texans aren’t happy at the federal government’s land grab for a barrier that cut across their property.
So far, more than 300 cases have landed in Hanen’s court.
“It’s kind of like dirty work but somebody’s gotta do it,” Burnett says.
Hanen told Burnett that the cases involve similar legal issues from case to case, but each one is uniquely important to the individual landowner.
“It’s his or her property that’s being taken away,” Hanen said. “It affects them differently. Some people use the land just as farm land, so as long as they can take their tractor to the back 40 [acres] they don’t care that it’s behind the fence. Other people, as I said, have their houses and they do care if they get in and out of their house or that a fire truck can get in or out of their house if they were to have a fire, or an ambulance.”
Hanen has gotten his boots dirty on cases as well, and he’s called himself sensitive to landowners’ needs. He’s gone down to the border and checked out some of the territory in dispute in his court.
Burnett says that only two-thirds of the 300 cases Hanen’s seen have been resolved – 91 remain open after close to a decade.
In some cases, the courts can’t find the landowners. Burnett says some property rights go back to Spanish land grants. Some property owners have died without wills, creating a “title search nightmare.”
Typically the federal government will offer landowners a $100 deposit to survey each parcel of land and owners negotiate up the price from there through the courts. When negotiations between the federal government and landowners fail, the cases also end up in Hanen’s court.
Hanen told Burnett there isn’t a lot of legal precedence for these cases.
“It’s funny though how, from a legal standpoint, how little law there really is – at least in recent years,” Hanen said. “When we first got involved in these cases, most of the law that we looked at – the precedent that we looked at – stemmed from World War II or the Tennessee Valley Authority.”
Burnett says it’s not uncommon for federal land acquisition for big complex projects, like building a U.S.-Mexico barrier, to drag on for years.
As an example, a senior lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department who works in land acquisition told Burnett that just recently they were able to close the deal on the last six parcels of land for the Everglades National Park in Florida. They started land acquisition there in 1989.
And Hanen knows what’s coming, now that Trump has initiated the expansion of a southern barrier between the U.S. and Mexico.
“There’s bound to be a whole new string of cases as the fence works its way up the Valley, and works its way up the river toward Laredo,” Hanen told Burnett. “We’re going to get a lot more cases. Pretty much between here and Laredo, people live on the river.”
He said it’ll be a headache to deal with.
Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.