WASHINGTON (CN) — For five generations, Nayda Alvarez’s family has owned the land where she has made a home in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.
It’s nearly time for Alvarez, a teacher of 22 years, to retire there, but a battle for eminent domain being waged against her by the federal government has made that future uncertain.
“I am not willing to sacrifice my home over a campaign promise,” said Alvarez, testifying Thursday morning before members of the House subcommittee on border security.
The hearing also featured testimony from one Arizona rancher who spoke in favor of building a wall to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, but Alvarez and two other witnesses said the government’s claims of an immigration crisis ring hollow.
“There has been no transparency, and we have been intimidated by government officials to sign over rights to our land,” Alvarez said. “We have been talked down to by government representatives who think we are not aware of our rights.”
Last year, as her mother was dying of cancer, Alvarez said the government offered her $100 to let agents cut through her land to decide how much they will take.
“And they call this the land of the free,” Alvarez said.
Representative Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., reminded the committee that Trump’s “fixation on the boondoggle border wall” has left American taxpayers to foot the construction bill while claiming more than 60% of the border lands from private owners.
But Republicans insisted the border wall is critical to protect national security.
“Walls don’t mean don’t come in,” said Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana. “Walls mean come in through a gate.”
Rey Anzaldua, a veteran and customs officer of 30 years, told the committee meanwhile that problem at the border is field supervision, as officers tend to be texting on the job or asleep in patrol cars.
The border wall, Anzaldua said, will not stop the demand in the U.S. for drugs and cheap labor made possible by illegal immigration.
Like Alvarez, Anzaldua told the committee that he owns 60 acres in Texas in the path of Trump’s border wall — land that has been in his family for generations and that the government has sued to survey.
The government would have to build the border wall one mile inland because of the river that runs through his property, Alvarez explained, making a stretch of the land that he described as being the size of the District of Columbia nothing but “no man’s land.”
“The Border Patrol says some landowners will have gates but who will know the codes to the gates, and who do we call if there are problems?” Anzaldua asked. “What happens if the power goes out? What good is owning land if I have to ask the government permission to access it? This is un-American.”
The final witness for the Democrats today was Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Norris said his tribe shares the Trump administration’s concerns about border security but that Homeland Security paid no attention when the tribe’s historians made them aware that construction could disturb human remains.
The House Resources Committee heard testimony from Norris just a day earlier on the government’s destruction of sacred lands.
“To add insult to injury,” Norris said, Customs and Border Patrol officials had invited the press as that hearing was ongoing to witness more blasting on Monument Hill where the tribal leader’s ancestors are believed to be buried.
“The disrespect for our cultural resources is painful for us,” Norris testified. He urged Congress to pass into law a House bill that rescinds waiver authority for the secretary of Homeland Security to disregard local laws while building the border wall.
The Trump administration has readily acted on the waiver authority on 16 occasions, more than three times the number by President George W. Bush during two terms in office.
On the Republican side, 80-year-old Arizona rancher Jim Chilton told the committee that the border wall is critical to protect families like his against drug traffickers.
“My wife is seriously concerned,” Chilton said. “She knows how to use a gun, and we have guns everywhere to protect ourselves.”
Chilton shared a video taken by a motion-activated camera on his property that showed men trekking with backpacks, pointing out that “big bales of what might be marijuana, are coming through our ranch.”
The rancher said the border-patrol strategy is long outdated. On his property, the closest outpost is 80 miles from the international border, lined by a barbed wire fence that Chilton said poses no hurdle even to old-timers like him.
But Congressman Thompson questioned whether it was true that the self-described cowboy’s land was partially owned by the federal government.
Chilton in response admitted that he leases the five miles of his ranch that run along the southern border from the U.S. Forest Service.
“The assumption was that that was your land,” Thompson said, noting that Chilton will not lose his home, like the other three witnesses on Thursday’s panel, if the Trump administration erects a barrier on the property.
“We want to secure our southern border,” the congressman added. “I’m just not sure that securing with a fence gets us what we want, by doing away with all property rights.”