SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
People who own land along President Trump's proposed border wall risk losing their land if the wall is ever actually built. Some residents have received letters from the federal government in the last couple of months advising them of that possibility. There is some history here. T. Christian Miller, a senior reporter for ProPublica, dug into all of this in a series co-published with The Texas Tribune called "The Taking." Mr. Miller, thanks so much for being with us.
T CHRISTIAN MILLER: Thanks for having me on.
SIMON: And take us back to this time - I guess it was called the border fence under the Bush administration. What was the plan at that point?
MILLER: So this was back in 2006, and it was called the Secure Fence Act, and both Republicans and Democrats joined together to vote for the construction of a border fence as it was called at the time. It was 18 feet high, so it wasn't quite as large as what President Trump has discussed building down there, but it was a major construction effort. And it put up fence all along the Rio Grande in different parts. But in order to do that, the federal government had to seize land from a bunch of private property owners, and that's what our story looked at - how the government, in our reporting showed, had abused that process to take land and resulted in unfair payments to different people.
SIMON: Well, we certainly want to talk about that, but let's note first some big-name Democrats signed onto this plan, too, didn't they?
MILLER: Oh, sure. Back then, it was a bipartisan effort. So Senator Pete King from - a Republican from New York introduced the act. It was approved by both then-Senators Hillary Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama. Both voted to approve the construction of the secure fence.
SIMON: What happened when they actually began?
MILLER: So the first step in Texas is kind of an unusual situation. Much of the land along the U.S. border is in public hands already owned by the federal government. But for a variety of reasons in Texas, most of the border is still owned by private property owners. And this includes very wealthy individuals who own big ranches and farms along the river and a lot of small, mostly Latino owners who have had claim to the land in some cases dating back to when Spain owned that part of Texas. So it's an unusual situation, and it required the government to come in and exercise what's called eminent domain. And you might have heard of that before. It's when the government takes land to build things like national parks or military bases.
The interesting thing about the federal government is that in the 1930s when the U.S. was in the middle of the Depression, there was a big movement to stimulate the economy with large public works projects. So because of that need, Congress passed a very special law called the Declaration of Taking Act. And what that essentially did is it gave the government, unlike any other government agency, it gave the federal government the power to quickly seize land. And when I say quickly, I mean the government sends you a letter, and the next day, they can take title to your land. And that's called a declaration of taking. And that's what they used - that's what the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Justice used to take land along the Texas border to build the fence. And what they do is to compensate you is they write you a check, and they say here's the check, we own the land, now let's argue about how much money this check is for. But there's really no argument you make about whether or not they get to take your land. The federal government almost uniquely has the power to take land first and then pay you later.
SIMON: The land we're talking about, the action in 2006, is there a beautiful wall there today?
MILLER: I don't want to opine on whether or not it's beautiful or not. But yes, there is a wall that stretches along about...
SIMON: A fence I guess we should say, right? Yes.
MILLER: It's a fence. It's a question of sort of terminology. There are places where it's a big - there's a concrete supporting barrier there. And there are places where there is a metal fence that looks - to most people, it would look like a giant rusted picket fence.
SIMON: Did everyone get paid, reimbursed?
MILLER: No. Even 10 years later now, there are still lawsuits open where people still haven't been paid for their land. In other words, they were still negotiating how much to accept for the land, and there's no reason to suspect that won't occur if there's any new wall construction.
SIMON: T. Christian Miller, senior reporter for ProPublica, thanks so much for being with us.
MILLER: Thanks, Scott. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.