Senators Schumer, Durbin, Udall, Heinrich Demand Answers On President Trump’s Attempts To Use Eminent Domain Against The Roman Catholic Diocese Of Brownsville, Texas, To Build Border Wall

January 18, 2019

In A New Letter To Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Top Senate Democrats Demand Detailed Information Concerning Impact Of President’s Trump’s Use of Eminent Domain To Try To Build His Border Wall On Religious Organizations’ And American Citizens’ Land— 67 % Of Land Located Along The Southwest Border Belongs To Non-Federal Entities

 

2017 Report Released By Democrats On The Senate Committee On Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs Showed That Trump Administration Has Been Unable To Provide Specific Information Regarding How Many American Citizens’ Will Have Their Land Seized

Democrats To President Trump: Eminent Domain Should Not Be Invoked In Violation Of Any Religious Organization’s Rights

Washington, D.C. – Today, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) released a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen demanding answers regarding President Trump’s attempts to use eminent domain against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, to build his border wall. The letter sheds light on the Trump administration’s efforts to access property owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville and located in the Rio Grande Valley. The affected property includes the sacred site La Lomita Chapel—a 153 year old structure—that would be jeopardized by the construction of a border wall. According to a report released in 2017 by Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Trump administration has been unable to provide details and specifics of how they will obtain the land from American citizens and religious organizations to facilitate the construction of the president’s desired border wall.

Given the administration’s lack of a plan and the fact that 67 percent of the land located along the southwest border belongs to non-federal entities, the Democrats’ letter expresses concern regarding President Trump’s previous praise of eminent domain, when he called it “wonderful” and “absolutely necessary”. To this end, Democrats are requesting information from DHS regarding the specifics of how President Trump’s use of eminent domain will impact religious organizations and American citizens—including the number of organizations/people that will be affected, the costs, requirements, time table, and more— so that Congress can better understand the situation and provide oversight to protect the rights of religious organizations and Americans.

The letter can be found here and below:

The Honorable Kirstjen Nielsen Secretary

Department of Homeland Security

3801 Nebraska Ave. NW Washington, D.C. 20528

Dear Secretary Nielsen:

We write today to express our concerns regarding the Trump Administration’s efforts to exercise the power of eminent domain against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas and other religious organizations in support of building a wall along the southwestern border of the U.S. We request that you provide transparency regarding how many religious organizations and American citizens will have their land seized so that President Trump can build his border wall.

In October 2018, the Department of Justice, on behalf of Customs and Border Protection, sued the Diocese demanding an easement of property in the Rio Grande Valley owned by the Catholic Church to begin preparatory work needed to plan a barrier on the border. The affected property includes La Lomita Chapel, a 153-year old structure created by missionaries from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and referred to by parishioners as their “mother church.”

The Diocese challenged the Trump Administration’s exercise of eminent domain on religious grounds. The Diocese is unable to consent to an easement or to any other action that would facilitate the construction of a border wall on its property because the proposed border wall is “fundamentally inconsistent with Catholic values and, if completed, would substantially burden the free exercise of religion by restricting access to La Lomita Chapel, a sacred site of the [Rio Grande] Valley’s Catholic community.”

The Trump Administration’s lawsuit against the Diocese raises important questions on the exercise of eminent domain to build a border wall and the impact it will have on religious organizations and American taxpayers. According to a report released by the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Trump administration has been unable to provide specific information regarding how many American citizens will have their land seized, definitive real estate costs or requirements, or a timetable for completing land acquisition efforts necessary to build President Trump’s border wall. In addition, landowners whose land was taken through eminent domain during prior border efforts told Congress that the federal government did not provide just compensation for their property and—in some instances—were still waiting to be compensated for takings that occurred nearly a decade ago.

Given that 67 percent of the land along our southwest border belongs to entities other than the federal government, we are troubled that President Trump has not provided any estimates regarding the impact of using eminent domain to build a border wall. We are particularly concerned by President Trump’s praise of the seizure of privately-owned property, calling eminent domain “wonderful” and “absolutely necessary.” In addition, although required by law, the Department of Homeland Security has not yet provided Congress with a plan to consult local elected officials on the eminent domain process relating to physical barriers along the border.

The federal government must exercise extreme caution when seizing private property, especially with respect to sacred sites like La Lomita Chapel. Even then, eminent domain should not be invoked in violation of any religious organization’s First Amendment right of free exercise of religion, Fifth Amendment right to just compensation for any public taking of private property, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

To better understand how President Trump’s exercise of eminent domain to build a border wall will impact religious organizations and American citizens, we ask that you respond to the following questions by January 31, 2019:

How many religious organizations and American citizens will have their land seized through the exercise of eminent domain to build a border wall? 

1. What are the estimated real estate costs or requirements for land seizures from religious organizations and American citizens through the exercise of eminent domain to build a border wall? 

2. What is the estimated timetable for completing land acquisition efforts necessary to build a border wall?

3. Has the Department ever waived, or does it plan to waive, the requirements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to build a border wall?

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely, 

Charles E. Schumer Democratic Leader

Richard J. Durbin U.S. Senate

Tom Udall U.S. Senate

Martin Heinrich U.S. Senate

cc:       The Honorable Kevin K. McAleenan Commissioner

            U.S. Customs and Border Protection