The federal government has paid as much as $870,000 per acre to take ownership of private land along the border in Texas for space to build President Trump’s border wall, according to a new watchdog report released this week.
The Government Accountability Office said more than 50 such takings have been completed, and dozens more are still in the works, even as the administration prepares for an expected change in control in two months.
Top Democrats this week demanded Homeland Security stop any work on future takings, saying presumed President-elect Joseph R. Biden is expected to cancel wall work.
“As Congress’s independent watchdog confirms, this administration is still actively seizing the private land of farmers and ranchers to build Trump’s wasteful, divisive border wall,” said the Democrats, led by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.
All of the property confiscated so far is in Texas.
In at least 50 more cases, the government has filed court documents to gain access to land for surveying work or other non-permanent types of activities.
Under the Constitution, the federal government can condemn and take possession of land deemed necessary for public projects, as long as it offers fair compensation.
Homeland Security is eyeing a total of 1,016 pieces of private property, of 3,752 acres, for wall construction under its purview.
Of those, 123 pieces have been acquired, at an average cost of about $13,000 per acre. The highest rate came on some land in far southern Texas, at $870,261 per acre.
Defense Department money is also being used for a smaller number of takings.
Most of the wall building done so far has involved replacing previous barriers built under previous presidents of both parties, where the government already had access to the land.
But Customs and Border Protection officials had eyed building hundreds of miles on previously unfenced land with future money, and that often means getting property not already in government hands.
Only about 30% of the 1,954-mile border is federal land.
CBP officials didn’t offer any comment for this article.
During a press briefing earlier this month, though, officials said they’ve completed more than 400 miles of construction and expect to have 450 miles done by the end of the year.
And they say every yardstick shows the wall works in reshaping illegal immigration and drug smuggling on the border.
It’s not that people can’t get in, but the wall slows them down and gives agents a chance to nab them.
Having a two-tier wall, with the first layer up against the boundary and another fence set back, and a road running between them, provides even better chances to nab someone in between the two barriers.
Some urban areas in California and Arizona even have three tiers.
CBP leaders say some agents value the high-speed road even more than the wall.
The larger wall and the accompanying road have sent costs soaring. The Trump administration is paying about $20 million per mile of border wall, compared to $4 million to $6 million for fencing during the Obama administration.
GAO is conducting a separate investigation of the wall contracting decisions made during the Trump years, after Democrats on Capitol Hill said they feared cronyism and waste.
Mr. Biden has said he will end wall construction, but some of his supporters want him to go further and tear down wall built during the Trump years.
Mr. Trump siphoned money from some Pentagon accounts toward wall building in 2019 and 2020, and those moves are being challenged in the courts. The plaintiffs say if they prevail, they’ll demand any wall built with that cash be removed. The Supreme Court is slated to hear that challenge later this month.