The racist Trump administration is using the coronavirus emergency to seize more land on the southern border, arguing that it has to protect the nation from Mexico during the pandemic. That’s even though Mexico has experienced just a fraction of the cases and deaths from the disease that the U.S. has seen. While landowners on the border are sheltering in their homes from the pandemic, the administration is capitalizing on an accelerated land grab for Trump’s wall.
“Is that essential business?” asked one landowner, Nayda Alvarez. She recently found construction markers on the her family’s land in Starr County, Texas—property her family has held for five generations. “That didn’t stop a single minute during the shelter in place or stay at home.” The crews came onto her land in March when she was in Washington, D.C., testifying against the border wall. Months earlier, Alvarez had confronted government surveyors on her property, who lied and told her that they’d gotten permission from one of her relatives. She kicked them off, but says they still see the construction crews driving on the family property. While these landowners are stuck in their homes, unable to meet with their lawyers and family members, Trump’s contractors are swarming on their land, surveying for the wall.
“They want to do it all obviously prior to November,” another landowner, said Steven Kobernat. He told the Times that “he felt hounded” by Trump’s Department of Justice. “But here we are in a pandemic. We can’t meet, we can’t meet with our families. And then D.O.J. says it’s time-sensitive in a time of pandemic. It’s just absurd.” He wrote last month to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Border Patrol officials harassing him: “There is a sudden mad rush to obtain our property by pushing us to sign and sell immediately. But due to the extraordinary current pandemic crisis, we simply need more time. […] Our family is presently unable to safely confer with each other or our attorney as we need to—due to my mayor, my governor and your boss’s shelter-in-place rules.”
The administration is also suing landowners who resist at a record clip: 30 suits just this year. Kobernat has been threatened with a suit by the Justice Department. Soon after he sent that letter, he started getting calls saying if he didn’t cooperate with the Army Corps and let them access and survey his property, he’d be taken to court and his land could be seized by eminent domain. They are exploiting this crisis and have “taken advantage of people sheltering in place. People have not been able to seek out attorneys,” said Ricky Garza, an attorney with the Texas Civil Right Project. “We haven’t seen any signs of it slowing down. The landowner is really at the mercy of what the government is trying to do.”
It’s not entirely clear what the government is actually trying to do right now other than fulfill Trump’s racist fantasies and terrorize families on both sides of the border. A report from Customs and Border Patrol released this week showed that 194 miles of both primary and secondary walls have been constructed, and just 16 miles of the wall are in a place where fencing didn’t already exist. But only three miles of wall have been built where no wall, fence, or barrier existed before.