The Taking

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica  
December 14, 2017


President Trump has promised a big, beautiful border wall. Prototypes have been built. Potential price tags have ranged from $12 billion to $20 billion. Democrats, meanwhile, have pledged a fight. Immigrant rights groups have promised lawsuits.

“The Taking,” a joint reporting project by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, should make everyone on every side of the border wall issue – Republicans and Democrats, landowners and litigants – think again.

The project examined the first effort at a border wall – an ill-fated, profoundly unfair, comically inept, bipartisan bungling undertaken a decade ago. Then, hundreds of properties were taken in Texas under the federal powers of eminent domain. The rich got paid; the poor got shafted; fundamental property rights, beloved by conservatives, were traduced; the corrupt got rewarded; money and time got wasted; cases to this day remain unresolved.

“The Taking” – part investigative takedown, part historical novella – is the definitive account of that cautionary tale.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica spent months reviewing more than 416 eminent domain lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department against property owners in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California for construction of the border fence. To analyze those cases, we built a database, entering data by hand to better describe the properties, the attorneys involved and the final outcomes. We also used the federal Freedom of Information Act to acquire a broader dataset of all eminent domain lawsuits filed in the past decade by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which handles such cases for the federal government. FOIA was also used to obtain annual reports on eminent domain seizures by the Department of Transportation, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

We also acquired more than 1,104 emails and internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection division obtained through FOIA by Denise Gilman, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who led a project on the border fence ( We used the Texas Public Information Act to acquire emails, reports and invoices related to the construction of the levee-border fence in Hidalgo County, Texas.

We reported up and down the Rio Grande Valley, interviewing scores of property owners, politicians and local attorneys. We talked with eminent domain experts and legal practitioners. We interviewed local, state and federal officials. We also viewed sealed court documents provided by a local official.

The revelations were disturbing and many: the federal government secretly waived some of the protections meant to safeguard private property owners; things as basic as credible land value assessments were set aside; options that would have better served those too poor to afford a lawyer were ignored; the entire set of lawsuits had to be done over after it was learned that none of the payments to landowners included money for their water rights, holdings that were often far more valuable than the land itself; an obscure bureaucrat in Hidalgo County made millions after DHS failed to employ essential safeguards for hiring contractors.

“The Taking” made use of the full assortment of 21st Century journalism tools – compelling video, irrefutable data, even creative cartooning (an entire story was told as a comic).

More than half a dozen Texas newspapers ran the initial main story on their front pages. Veteran Texas journalists saluted the work’s mix of sweep and detail. Subsequent stories explored the impact of the fence on landowners whose properties were not seized, but which were damaged nonetheless by the construction. Indeed, the Institute of Justice wrote to say they will be including the article in a U.S. Supreme Court brief they plan to file on compensation in eminent domain cases – an issue that the nation’s highest court has never ruled on directly.

The editorial page of the San Antonio Express-News captured the damning truths at the heart of project, however one feels about the wisdom of a second, more expensive border wall.

“President Donald Trump’s expensive and unnecessary border wall shouldn’t be built, but if it is, the federal government must not be allowed to abuse landowners and the nation’s eminent domain laws to get it done.

“Past practice is not encouraging in this regard. Abuse is precisely what occurred when the government acquired border land a decade ago, including for a barrier in southernmost Texas, according to an investigation by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

“The reporting by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune’s Kiah Collier and Julián Aguilar told of ‘takings’ that were saturated with incompetence, ignorance of the law, harmful shortcuts and government heavy-handedness.

“How this land was ‘taken’ should make us concerned for border landowners in any future with a Trump border wall in it. More than that, it should make us mindful of the vast powers the federal government has to take property. With that comes the ability to do it right — or grievously wrong.”

We at the Texas Tribune and ProPublica are proud to nominate the joint effort for the Enterprise & Innovation Award.

LINK to content online

Additional Story Links:
1. The Taking (12/14/2017)

LINK 2 to content online

2. The border fence looms over these Texans. Should the government pay them? (12/15/2017)

LINK 3 to content online

3. How a South Texas bureaucrat became a multimillionaire amid the rush to build a border fence (12/29/2017)

LINK 4 to content online

4. United States of America v. 15.919 Acres of Land (12/20/2017)

LINK 5 to content online

5. How the border fence cut through one Brownsville neighborhood (video) (12/14/2017)

LINK 6 to content online

6. How We Reported ‘The Taking’ (12/13/2017)

LINK 7 to content online

Submitted by Kiah Collier.

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