A number of landowners along the U.S.-Mexico border are questioning inconsistent settlement funds they’ve received from the Justice Department, saying the payout disparity shows the unfair treatment poorer property owners were subject to in the transactions.
Since 2008, hundreds of property owners on the U.S.-Mexico border, ranging from Texas to California, have sought fair prices for property condemned to build a fence for immigration control. Many received initial offers well below market value and later learned that neighbors who hired attorneys received larger settlements, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Inconsistent settlements have raised questions about the DOJ’s treatment of hundreds of border landowners who couldn’t afford lawyers and now live with a steel fence dissecting their land. An Associated Press analysis found that in 300 Texas land cases, the government paid out nearly $15 million in settlements. However, 85 percent of that was awarded to just a third of the property holders.
The DOJ referred the Associated Press to the federal guide on land seizures when asked about border properties taken in an eminent domain action to build a fence to control immigration. The government strives “to achieve a fair resolution for both the landowner and American taxpayers,” DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.
The DOJ would not comment on unresolved cases.
Teofilo Flores, a cotton grower, was offered $1,650 for part of his Texas backyard to erect a portion of the fence. Flores told the AP that he was happy with this offer until he learned that his neighbor had received 40 times more for a similar piece of yard and that another farmer received $1 million for his cooperation.
“You get angry. But that’s the way of life, I guess,” Flores told the Associated Press. “You know, people that got more money can afford to do more things.”
Congress in 2006 ordered the construction 670 miles of metal fence to deter illegal immigration, which required about 400 property owners to give up varying amounts of property for the project.
The AP noted that the department has argued in the past that original “lowball” offers were simply placeholders to kickstart the fence project quickly. “The plan was for full compensation to be paid later after factoring in damage to property and the loss of market value. Some landowners’ attorneys concurred with that understanding,” the AP reported.
About two dozen property owners asked for a jury in land disputes with the government. Half later settled and received additional funds that were an average of 1,200 percent more than the original offer, the AP reported.
But for people like Flores, the court fees are insurmountable. After an attorney told him it would cost $25,000 to take his case to court, he dropped the dispute.