If you spent any time on social media yesterday, there’s a good chance you saw that viral video of Colorado senator Michael Bennet laying into Ted Cruz on the floor of the U.S. Senate for failing to protect South Texans from President Trump’s desire to build a wall on their land. Cruz had just made the argument that the Senate should give Trump $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall so the government shutdown could be lifted and Coast Guard employees could get paid. (Earlier today, the shutdown ended, at least temporarily, minus the $5.7 billion appropriation.) Bennet, with unusual fervor for a Senate debate, denounced the Texas senator’s “crocodile tears,” recalling that back in 2013 Cruz himself led a government shutdown that had catastrophic consequences for Colorado when it was inundated with floods. And then he laid into Cruz on the matter of eminent domain. Bennet would never encourage the federal government to take his constituents’ land, he said. Why was Cruz doing so?
It was a reminder that one of the strange things about the Trump era is how many events are funhouse-mirror images of events that transpired during Barack Obama’s presidency. In the last few years, we’ve watched Republicans relearn to love executive power and Democrats learn to hate it again. The party that scorned Obama’s negotiations with Iran as cowardly and weak is cheering Trump’s handholding with the supreme leader of North Korea. And, as the Bennet v. Cruz bout reminded us as well, the fight over Trump’s border wall bears a strong similarity to another recent attempt by the federal government to seize private land in Texas—one that played out a lot differently.
In 2009 the Bureau of Land Management published a series of surveys in the Federal Register that laid claim to small strips of land between the medial line of the Red River—the invisible line down the middle of the waterway that constitutes the border between Texas and Oklahoma—and the river’s south bank. A mundane turning of the federal bureaucracy, one might think, except that the BLM and Texas landowners south of the river happened to disagree pretty vigorously on where the south bank of the river actually was, and the difference between the two put the ownership of a lot of privately owned land in doubt.
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The substance of the matter was labyrinthine, but the political reality of the fight was simple. Here was a federal agency under the purview of Barack Obama coming to Texas to take land from ranchers. The headlines wrote themselves, and politicians and pundits were happy to weigh in. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, launched a major effort to fight the feds in court. Texas elected officials, from Governor Greg Abbott on down to minor lawmakers like state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, toured the area and pledged to fight them too. Abbott told the agency to “come and take it” in a fundraising email, recalling the Battle of Gonzales, and Stickland expressed hope that the situation didn’t blow up into a “Nevada-type situation,” with landowners taking up arms. For a moment, that seemed as if it might happen: militia members came and rallied on some of the disputed land, employing superheated rhetoric, and the FBI followed them.
The immense political pressure worked—after reducing its claim, the BLM dropped the matter entirely when President Donald Trump took office. The lesson, hard won by the feds, was that Texans could be brought to revolt even in defense of thin strips of inaccessible river scrubland.
But let’s fast forward a few years and jump from the northern riverine boundary of the state to the southern. Texas politicians may well have been right to come to the defense of the Red River ranchers. If so, it’s hard to understand, as a matter of consistency, their relative silence in regard to another threatened federal land grab, this time on the Rio Grande. In order to build Trump’s border wall, or fence, or whatever, the federal government will have to seize a substantial amount of land on the Rio Grande’s north bank. In Texas, most of that land is privately owned.
These actions would be, in many ways, worse than what the BLM contemplated along the Red River, where the land would have been kept in more or less the same condition, regardless of who owned it. By contrast, wherever the border fence goes up, the federal government will seize and clear-cut a 150-foot buffer zone, fill it with lights, cameras, sensors, and access roads, and build a three-story steel and concrete structure, with additional infrastructure behind it. Much of this would cut across nature preserves, homesteads, ranches, colonias, and historic sites.
It would be one thing if Congress agreed to fund and build the wall, signifying it as a national priority—that’s how things are supposed to work. But, even after the shutdown was lifted today, Trump continued to threaten to circumvent the people’s representatives entirely by declaring a national emergency and authorizing funds himself. The BLM at least claimed a mandate from Congress and could be reined in by Congress. In this case, the executive branch is threatening to go it alone—initiating a process that would seize Texans’ land on shaky legal grounds.
Because the fight over the wall is understood by the national media to be a D.C. story—about whether Trump or his foes will prevail in a political game—the impact that the wall would have on people who live next to it has received very little play in the national media. It’s fallen to Texas journalists to try to raise their stature.
In the Texas Observer, Gus Bova wrote about Father Roy Snipes, known around Mission, Texas for “his love of Lone Star beer, a propensity to swear freely and the menagerie of rescue dogs he’s rarely seen without.” Snipes is fighting to save the modest La Lomita chapel, built in 1899, which falls in the buffer zone of a border wall the feds are planning to build in Hidalgo County. At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque wrote about Ramiro Ramírez’s attempt to save the family cemetery of his ancestors, the Jacksons, who ran a post on the underground railroad. The feds will either have to exhume the bodies or build over them, just like the government plans to clear-cut and build through the National Butterfly Center.
These stories and others helps illustrate how much life in South Texas has historically been oriented around the river, and how much of an imposition the taking of land would be on top of the many impositions the federal government has made on south Texans in recent years. Much of the border land between El Paso and Brownsville may belong to wealthy ranchers, but along the border there are also plenty of poor communities and homeowners—like Pamela Taylor, an octogenarian Trump supporter who faces eviction from her home in Brownsville. The area as a whole is poorer and more Hispanic than the rest of the state.
Maybe it’s worth it. That’s what conservative politicians say when asked. Eminent domain is for projects in the collective interest, and maybe a border wall is one. But in that case, the evidence that the border wall would help the United States ought be weighed against the imposition it would place on citizens who live along the river. And that’s not the conversation we’ve had. When people talked about the Red River, they focused on the lives of the ranchers. What would you feel like, conservative media asked, if the federal government came and took land from you?
Yet the lives of south Texans have been far from the center of the argument over the wall. One group of people who could change that, of course, is the same group of people who put the Red River ranchers front and center—Texas politicians, and groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
They haven’t, of course. While TPPF analysts once described Trump’s border wall as evidence of a “rigid” and “polarized” debate over immigration, they’ve been quiet lately. So has Governor Abbott, who hasn’t been enthusiastic about the wall but hasn’t offered words of caution, either. Stickland hasn’t been to Mission to rally with Father Snipes. And Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick considers additional wall building a life-or-death matter for Texas.
Ted Cruz was another one of the people who made hay out of the fight on the Red River, pressuring the agency and then, when declaring victory in 2017, writing that “Texans along the Red River should not be subject to the seizure of property they rightfully own.” On Thursday, on the Senate floor, when he rose to urge Democrats to capitulate and pass funding for the wall, Senator Bennet noted how odd it was that Cruz was going to the mat in support of a project that would seize his constituents’ property.
“I can assure you that in Colorado, that if a president said he was going to use eminent domain to erect a barrier across the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, he was going to steal the property of our farmers and ranchers to build his medieval wall,” Bennet said, “there wouldn’t be an elected leader from our state who would support that idea.”
That’s what you would expect, normally. Whether the BLM was in the right or not about the Red River borders, Texas senators were going to oppose them, because that’s what elected officials usually do for their constituents. Why is that not happening now? And why has no one who supports the wall made the honest case that the wall would be worth more to the nation than it would cost south Texans?