The Trump administration has acquired just 16% of the private land in Texas it needs to build the president's border barrier, casting doubt on his campaign promise to complete nearly 500 miles of new fencing by the end of next year, according to the latest construction data obtained by the Washington Post.
And of the 166 miles of border barrier the U.S. government is planning to build in Texas, new construction has been completed along just 2% of that stretch a year before the target completion date, according to the construction data. Just four miles of the planned border wall in Texas is on federal land — the 162 remaining miles lie on private property.
Faced with intense pressure to meet Trump's 500-mile campaign pledge, administration officials have instead prioritized the lowest-hanging fruit of the barrier project, accelerating construction along hundreds of miles of flat desert terrain under federal control in Western states where the giant steel structure can be erected with relative ease.
That has deferred the tougher work of adding miles of fencing along the zigzagging course of the lower Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal crossings. There, along the winding river's edge, the land is almost all privately held, and the government would need to obtain it — either via purchases or eminent domain land grabs — before any construction begins.
The government has just started to contact dozens of landowners for permission to visit their farms and ranches for survey work along major stretches of the border.
David Acevedo, a rancher and businessman with a 180-acre property south of Laredo, said he does not want to lose land his grandfather purchased more than a century ago. He has granted Border Patrol agents access to his property, but he does not want a giant steel structure on it.
"I want border security. Put up more cameras, sensors, send more agents and give them drones," he said. "But we don't need a wall."
The administration has not had to rely on eminent domain authority to take any private land in southern Texas thus far, according to a Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss the project.
"South Texas brings unique challenges when it comes to land acquisition and construction," the official said. "And we have a river to contend with."
The official acknowledged that litigation challenging the use of military funds for the barrier has also hampered the government's ability to acquire private land in Texas, but crews are still seeking access to properties for survey work.
"We're continuing to move forward with everything we can legally do to get as close to the construction start dates as possible," the official said.
As of mid-October, the Trump administration has completed 75 miles of new barrier, but that has gone to replace smaller, older fencing in Western states on land the government already controls.
The president, who ran on a promise to make Mexico pay for the barrier, has obtained nearly $10 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds for the project since 2017, according to the latest project data, including $3.6 billion in diverted military construction funds and $2.5 billion in reprogrammed counternarcotics money. A federal court in El Paso ruled in October that the diversion of the funds to the barrier project was unlawful, a ruling that could put a crimp in the administration's land acquisition plans.
In an Oct. 27 statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said 158 miles of barrier is under construction, while an additional 276 miles is in a "preconstruction phase." Senior CBP officials say they remain on pace to complete 450 miles of barrier by the end of 2020. At rallies, the president has told supporters it will be more. CBP officials declined to comment.
A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the construction plans said there are at least 100 landowners in Texas who will need to give up property for the project, and a small fraction so far have been sent offer letters. Many have yet to receive "right of entry" requests for the government to begin surveying. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the risk of being fired.
The Rio Grande creates a natural barrier along nearly two-thirds of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and its looping bends and circuitous course make it nearly impossible to build a lineal barrier along the international boundary.
Instead, much fencing will be set atop the earthen levees, many built decades ago, that were installed to control seasonal flooding. Because the distance between the levees and the banks of the Rio Grande can be a half-mile or more in some areas, landowners have expressed concern that a barrier would create large swaths of "no man's land" where privately held land will be walled off between the barrier and the river. Such land is likely to be devalued and in other cases could become useless to owners.
In New Mexico, Arizona and California, border authorities are able to use a 60-foot-wide ribbon of land known as the "Roosevelt Reservation," federal property that affords the government access to the international boundary and facilitates barrier construction. But no such easement exists in Texas, where river access is highly valuable.
Landowners who refuse to sell or attempt to hold out for a better price face the risk that the government will seize their property, with national security needs being the rationale.