“I’m … very, very disappointed in Joe Biden. I thought he was a man of his word but apparently he’s not keeping his word,” Reynaldo “Rey” Anzaldua Cavazos, a member of the family whose land was taken, told POLITICO. “He said not one more foot of wall and no land forfeitures. We took him at his word and we want him to keep his word.”
Despite Biden’s promise to quickly reverse Trump’s immigration policies, he has yet to act on many of them — from failing to increase the cap on refugees to rescinding a ban on most migrants at the southern border. But fewer issues carry as much symbolic weight as the border wall. And his actions there threaten to further complicate his pledge to offer a kinder, gentler immigration system where everyone is welcome.
“They can have all the excuses they want but it’s real dicey to look at what they’re doing right now,” said a person who consults with the White House on immigration policy who has grown frustrated. “It’s a lot of stuff Trump was doing.”
Trump completed more than 400 miles of a wall along the southern border before he left office, in large part by invoking an emergency declaration that allowed him to divert money from the Pentagon budget in 2019 and 2020 to pay for construction in four locations along the Mexican border. About 140 eminent domain cases — which allow the federal government to acquire private land for public use — remain active along the border in south Texas, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents a handful of families, including the Cavazos.
Biden said in an interview a few months before the November election that he would not only not build “another foot of wall” but he would end those eminent domain cases, too.
“End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” Biden told NPR in August.
But Biden’s administration has not withdrawn from Trump court cases to seize land for the wall. It has even conceded that the wall could continue to be built or modified.
The Department of Justice wrote last month in another eminent domain case that Biden’s proclamation “left open the possibility that some aspects of the project may resume.”
“At this time,” the department added, “the Secretary of Homeland Security has not shed light on the future of the border wall or the road project.”
The White House referred questions to the Department of Justice, which explained it sought to delay cases instead of ending them since Biden’s review was not complete.
“DOJ sought continuances in pending cases, including in this case, in which the government had previously filed motions for possession of land on the southwest border in light of President Biden’s proclamation terminating the national emergency at the southern border of the United States and directing ‘a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to construct a southern border wall,’” a DOJ official said.
After Biden was sworn into office, activists along the border sent a letter to him and his team, urging them to immediately dismiss all eminent domain cases. Some of the cases are still in the early stages, where property was being reviewed. Other cases pertain to possible compensation for property that has already been seized.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said CBP and the Army Corps of Engineers “have suspended surveys, negotiations with landowners, and similar real estate acquisition activities, in accordance with the president’s proclamation.” But the spokesperson referred questions about litigation to DOJ.
The Cavazos, whose extended family arrived in the area more than 200 years ago, have been fighting the federal government to try to keep the land that’s been in their family since the 1950s. They pushed back on the Bush and Obama administrations and went to the courts to fend off attempts by the Trump administration to seize part of their 77-acre ranch through eminent domain.
The Trump Department of Justice had made clear in its filings that it sought the land for the construction of a wall, noting it would “install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors, and related structures designed to help secure the United States/Mexico border within the State of Texas.”
In February, DOJ asked the judge for a delay in the ruling, citing Biden’s proclamation. The hearing was put on hold until this week, when Judge Micaela Alvarez of the Texas Southern District Court — appointed by Republican George W. Bush — granted DOJ’s request. The ruling meant, in practical terms, that the government had rightful possession to the Cavazos family land. And Roberto Lopez, community outreach coordinator of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that the title was now, indeed, in the feds’ possession.
“They’re arguing that because the administration has not said anything clearly or plainly that they can continue to do this,” Lopez said.
Family members are now expecting the government to try to use their land to fill in a gap in the border wall. They are asking for it back and accusing the president of breaking his promises.
“I thought when he said no more wall that we would get no more wall. But apparently not,” another family member, Jose Alfredo “Fred” Cavazos, told POLITICO. “He decided to turn around and do something about finishing the wall so we are very disappointed.”
Last week, in response to a question about the wall, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “wall construction remains paused” but the pause was taking place “while agencies are developing a plan for the president on the management of the federal funds.”
An Office of Management and Budget spokesperson said that federal agencies “are continuing to develop a plan to submit to the president soon.” The spokesperson noted that when Biden took office, “funds had been diverted from military construction and other appropriated purposes toward building the wall, and wall construction was being challenged in multiple lawsuits by groups alleging serious environmental and safety issues.”
The White House did not address why the review has been delayed beyond the 60-day timeframe. At least 114 of the 140 cases have progressed in some way since March 21, when the 60-day timetable ended, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“We thought a lot of this was over when Biden came in and it’s incredibly disheartening to learn today that they apparently appear to be going forward,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, which owns land near to the Cavazos family and has fought the border wall. “They could stop it at any time.”
Josh Gerstein contributed to this story.