The Final Step
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has embarked on its final step before beginning construction of a border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border-purchasing land on which the structure will soon stand.
On Wednesday, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers offered Eduardo Benavidez $4,100 for a sliver of his 3.5 acres in El Calaboz, about 10 miles west of Brownsville. Because his land lies along the path of the border fence, officials told him, he’ll have no choice but to sell.
Benavidez isn’t ready to sell his land along the Rio Grande, even if it is to the federal government. “I’m not signing anything,” he responded when DHS made their offer.
After the officials left, Benavidez, 86, called his brother. “These guys think they can do anything,” he said.
DHS plans to construct 700 miles of fencing by the end of 2008. But first, the federal government must purchase land from several hundred South Texas landowners-including Benavidez, who was born on his property in 1922 and still earns a living cutting sheet metal there.
“We do have people beginning negotiations with landowners in the Valley,” said Lloyd Easterling, an assistant chief for security operations for U.S. Border Patrol. “These are very initial negotiations.”
Not all landowners have adopted Benavidez’s refusal to sell. On Wednesday, his neighbor and cousin, Juanita Benavidez, agreed to part with .33 acres of her land for $12,500.
“It’s a fair price,” she said, “but I didn’t want to sell it.”
Benavidez said she felt pressured to sign documents from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“They were very forceful…and I don’t want them to think I’m a communist or something like that,” said Benevidez, who was given two weeks to consider the offer.
Benavidez, who speaks only Spanish, said she was given a copy of the government’s offer in English. No written translation was provided. The officials did explain in Spanish the amount of money that was being offered to her.
Also, a list of relevant terms, including “acquisition,” “easement,” and “eminent domain” was also provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, but only in English.
The Cameron County Appraisal District estimates the value of Juanita Benavidez’s 4.6 acres at $25,000. But like many of her neighbors, she doesn’t care much for monetary evaluations.
“I’ve lived here for 37 years,” she said. “I raised a family here.”
The 18-foot tall fence will run through Benavidez’s backyard, south of where the International Boundary and Water Commission’s levee currently stands.
In rural Southmost, Jose Manuel Reyes and his three brothers are also considering the government’s offer. The brothers live in adjacent houses along the Rio Grande.
Reyes was offered $2,200 for a 140 by 15-foot swath of land, roughly one sixth of his property. The appraisal district values the entire property at $12,000.
“I’m not sure if this price takes devaluation into account,” Reyes said. “How much will my property be worth when an 18-foot fence runs through the backyard?”
But Reyes is growing increasingly despondent. “It doesn’t matter what what we do,” he said. “They’re going to put it up whether we like it or not.”
Reyes acknowledges that he could hold out and let a federal judge mediate negotiations over the land’s value, but he isn’t eager to engage in a legal battle.
“After all that, I wonder if I would even gain anything,” he said. “What if they take away our original offer?” he asked. “At least now we’ll get something.”