by Kevin Diaz
For Nayda Alvarez, the U.S.-Mexico border is not a political slogan or a line of demarcation. It’s her back yard.
With the federal government threatening to construct “border security tactical infrastructure” across her one-acre lot in La Rosita, along the Rio Grande, she is looking at the end of a way of life her family has enjoyed for five generations – wooden corrals, farm animals and all.
So on Thursday, she took a seat alongside a group of constitutional theorists testifying before Congress on the legitimacy of President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration, which the administration is using to get billions of dollars for a new border wall – part of which would run between her house and the river 200 feet away.
“The bottom line for me is that the federal government is threatening to take my land to fulfill a campaign promise,” Alvarez told sympathetic lawmakers, including several from Texas.
Alvarez’s real hope, however, could lie not in the halls of Congress, but in a federal courthouse near the U.S. Capitol where she and a group of South Texas landowners are challenging the president’s edict.
Her lawsuit, which names Trump and Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, seeks to block the administration from diverting some $8 billion in military construction and other funds for a border wall. Hers’ comes on top another suit filed by 16 states other than Texas, as well as a Democratic-led resolution in Congress that Trump is expected to veto.
Unlike the hundreds of cases that have gone to court over the past decade involving people fighting federal seizures of their land on the southwest border, Alvarez’s challenge is tied directly to Trump’s two-week old emergency order.
Although Trump has said the wall is already going up, the legal jockeying around his move could push any new construction back years, at the same time that the administration seeks money for dozens more lawyers to fight a multitude of individual condemnation cases. In addition to the construction costs, the government has been forced to spend nearly $80 million to acquire land for fencing since 2007, according to congressional reports.
With the political fight over executive power intensifying as well, Alvarez has now become the national poster child for the cause of private landowners along the border in Texas threatened by the loss of land. Like many others, she faces not only eminent domain action for a wall, but also for a 150-wide “enforcement zone” to go with it.
For Alvarez, a 47-year-old teacher and landowner, that would put her house less than 50 feet from a major federal installation. “Even if my house is spared,” she said, “it will never be the same. I will lose my entire back yard, and I will be staring at a wall right outside my back door and windows.”
Her case has been picked up by Public Citizen Litigation Group, which filed suit in February, a month after she received her third letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seeking to survey her land for a wall and threatening to take her to court if she does not cooperate.
Alvarez lives next door to her father alongside land where her grandfather lived. The family has lived there for at least five generations. “My grandchild and nieces and nephews play in the same places where their parents played and where I played as a child,” she told a panel of the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering changes to the 1976 National Emergency Act being invoked by the White House.
“There is no emergency where I live,” she continued, “and there is no good reason for the government to take my property to build a border wall in my back yard.”
Alvarez’s property, however, lies in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, about halfway between Brownsville and Laredo, a sector which the Border Patrol has identified as one of the most heavily travelled sectors for migrants of the entire 1,954-mile Mexican border.
Some GOP lawmakers questioned her contention that she has never seen migrants from Mexico traversing her family’s land illegally. “How can you be so certain?” asked Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, the ranking Republican on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee.
Alvarez cited the video surveillance cameras around the house. “No drugs, no gangs, no terrorists come across my property,” she said.
Some of the Texans on the committee came to her rescue, including Houston Democrat Sylvia Garcia, who grew up on a farm in the South Texas town of Palito Blanco. “We always knew when somebody crossed the farm because there’d be either a fence that was left unlocked or some footprints,” she said. “There’d be some sign that somebody had traversed our property.”
Texas U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Tyler, said he sympathized, even as he remains a stalwart backer of Trump’s proposed wall. “I certainly appreciate testimony from anybody that lives there,” he said, “but of all the nights I’ve spent all night on the border, I’ve seen a crisis.”
For Alvarez, the crisis is the uncertainty of the coming legal battle, which to her is personal, not political.
“You’ve obviously had to hire lawyers, and you’ve had to fly to Washington, D.C., to defend your property,” said El Paso Democrat Veronica Escobar, a member of the committee. “I am very curious about what the government is putting you through.”
Alvarez testified that her community has been wracked by the same divisions as the rest of the country. “The government has created a loss of family members and a loss of friendships, divisions amongst us in our communities, because people agree and disagree,” she said.
As for her, she added, “I am here and I am here to fight this.”