If this headline had cropped up at any point before January 20th of this year it likely wouldn’t have created much of a stir outside of NeverTrump circles on social media. But during the Biden administration, it’s a very different story. Writing at Reason Magazine, Billy Binion describes the story of Baudilia “Lilly” Cavazos and her family, who own roughly 150 acres of land along the United States border with Mexico in Hidalgo County, Texas. But as of this week, they will own a bit less of it. The federal government prevailed in court and will immediately seize approximately seven acres of their land to complete the construction of a section of border wall in that area. The only thing that makes this story notable is Joe Biden’s history of insisting that all of Donald Trump’s efforts to complete the wall would be halted, if not reversed. On the campaign trail, he was adamant about ending land seizures for that purpose. So how did the Cavazos family wind up on the losing end of this battle?
A federal judge confirmed yesterday that a Texas family will have their land immediately seized by eminent domain for a U.S.-Mexico border wall—the very type of confiscation that President Joe Biden expressly promised he would put a stop to.
“We are utterly devastated,” said Baudilia Cavazos, whose family owns land in Hidalgo County, Texas. “We thought President Joe Biden would protect us. Now we’ve lost our land. We don’t even know what comes next.”
The Cavazos clan has fended off similar attempts at confiscation for years. When former President Donald Trump took office, his administration sought to claim about 7 acres and divide their land—which they rent to various tenants—in two. A huge chunk of their property would thus be nearly inaccessible to prospective customers, paralyzing their business.
Before getting to the specifics of this case, let’s briefly review Joe Biden’s previous statements and actions related to border construction and land seizure. Last August, during an interview on NPR, Biden said “There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.” He went on to say that land seizures for the purpose of border wall construction would “End, end, end, stop, done, over. Not gonna do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out.”
Seemingly sticking to that pledge, on Biden’s first day in office he issued an executive order pausing border wall construction for sixty days so that the situation could be studied. But sixty days have now come and gone without any further orders given or action being taken. In fact, that sixty-day window figured into how the court case against the Cavazos family was handled. The judge was reportedly set to rule on the matter on February 16 but granted a stay in the case until after Biden’s “pause” expired on March 21. The Cavazos family’s case isn’t unique, by the way. There are 140 more eminent domain cases like theirs pending in the courts today.
The real question, as I suggested above, is how this seizure took place given Biden’s previous statements and orders. The Justice Department was obviously aware that these challenges were playing out in the courts and they could have stepped in at any time to put a halt to them. Has there been a policy change under the covers or did Joe Biden and his staff simply forget that all of these pots were still simmering on the back burner and just move on to other priorities? The forgetfulness angle certainly sounds like a possibility because a Justice Department spokesperson told CNN this week that they were “surprised” to learn of the decision.
Even if someone reminds the White House staff that Trump’s policies and lawsuits related to border wall construction are still going on, walking back the seizure of the Cavazos clan’s land may be harder than you might think. Once seized, the land falls under the ownership of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM maintains two classifications of land: “real property” (generally developed, with buildings on it such as disused military bases) and “public land” which is generally undeveloped. The Cavazos property would be public land. BLM has specific rules in place for when and how they can sell such land. First of all, the government is not legally allowed to sell the land for anything below its listed fair market value. But depending on how the offer is structured, they may be forced to open the sale up to competitive bidding. It’s not impossible that, if the Cavazos family wants their land back, they might wind up having to pay more than the government gave them for it.
This is shaping up to be a series of ugly headlines for the Biden administration. And somebody at the Justice Department is almost certainly scrambling right now to get those other 140 cases wrangled back into the pen. The open question is what explanation Jen Psaki will offer as to how the Cavazos case got away from them and what excuse can be offered to Biden’s progressive base beyond, “Oops. I forgot.”