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Eminent domain efforts for wall to be probed

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Government Accountability Office will investigate the Trump administration’s efforts to use eminent domain to take the land of private landowners to build the wall on the Mexican border, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said this week.

In August, the New Mexico Democrats sent a letter along with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, urging the GAO to investigate the administration’s efforts that could affect New Mexico.

The Department of Homeland Security announced border wall projects in Doña Ana and Luna counties this spring. The federal government has a 60-foot easement, established in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, that runs from California to the Rio Grande.

“It is our understanding that the 60-foot easement – which comes from a 1907 proclamation that predated New Mexico’s statehood – applies to New Mexico state lands but does not have the same force when it comes to private land along the border,” Udall spokesman Ned Adriance said. “The federal government has used eminent domain to take land for border barrier construction on hundreds of occasions over the years. And in some cases, wall construction is not actually limited within the 60-foot easement – so even when dealing with state lands, there may be issues.”

Udall and Heinrich said that despite multiple requests from Congress, the Trump administration has failed to provide specific information regarding its eminent domain efforts, including how many citizens will have their land seized, real estate costs or requirements, or a timetable for completing land acquisition efforts. The lawmakers also said landowners should receive just compensation for any public seizure of private property.

“Given that 67% of the land along the Southwest border belongs to entities other than the federal government, we are troubled by the lack of transparency,” the senators wrote in their letter to the GAO.

They voiced concerns that some landowners did not receive compensation for land seizures for construction of border barriers. They said some were waiting for compensation for seizures that occurred almost a decade ago.

They asked about the process the Department of Homeland Security will use to acquire private property, and how much private land will be needed to complete the construction of the wall on the border.

GAO Congressional Relations Managing Director Orice Brown told the senators in a letter earlier this month that it would take about three months to get a qualified staff in place to conduct the investigation.

Earlier this year, Udall and Heinrich introduced the Full Fair and Complete Exchange Act, legislation that would prohibit the federal government from taking possession of land for border infrastructure until all persons or entities entitled to compensation are remunerated in full. The bill would ensure that the federal government provide compensation for land acquired for border infrastructure and would require consultation and approval from relevant stakeholders, including tribes, for any acquired state land.

“I welcome the new GAO investigation into the Trump administration’s abuse of eminent domain to seize the property of land owners for a wasteful and unpopular border wall,” Udall said in a news release.

He said that under the administration’s “thoughtless and potentially lawless land grab, homes could be confiscated, farms and livelihoods ruined, neighbors cut off from one another, tribal sovereignty upended, and endangered species and habitat lost forever.”

Heinrich said any efforts by the Trump administration to use eminent domain must take into account the rights of landowners.

“These property owners deserve transparency, and the administration needs to be held accountable for its actions,” the senator said.

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