“The general sentiment—to a person—is that everybody is in favor of additional border security,” said LaMantia. But seizing land through eminent domain? “That is diametrically opposed by everybody, from Zapata to Del Rio.”
LaMantia is reserved about his family’s holdings. He will admit to just a cattle ranch and natural-gas wells that front about five miles of the Rio Grande. But the land has been in his family’s hands for generations, even as the clan has made its fortune in beer. Its company, privately held L&F Distributors, controls the entire Anheuser-Busch operation from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to El Paso. It’s a big, big business.
“Everything down here sticks, stings, or bites,” he says, jokingly, about the mesquite-studded landscape. But I don’t think he’s talking about just the flora and the fauna. These landowners may be few, but they’re powerful. Campaign contributions can dry up. Local sheriffs can get the message to stop cooperating quite so much with Border Patrol agents.
“There are people there who have the resources that can fight this,” says Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, whose district hugs the river from Mission to Laredo.
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Dennis Nixon is one such person. The president of the International Bank of Commerce in Laredo, he is a potent force in Texas and national politics. He fought for NAFTA in the 1990s, but he backed Trump, who vowed repeatedly to dismantle the trade agreement, over Hillary Clinton in 2016 because the Obama administration, in his view, was rough on banks like his. (His community bank has assets of $12.2 billion.) Now he’s against a border wall.
“Those with influence and power have the ability to hire big lawyers,” says Gilman, the law professor. “There is no doubt about that.”
The region’s border barons also have the people of their state behind them: Texans have consistently opposed the wall in polls. So far, however, they haven’t received much support from their Senate delegation. Senator John Cornyn has turned from staunch opponent of eminent domain to total squish, saying that some fencing is needed—without saying how much or where. Senator Ted Cruz backed $25 billion for Trump’s wall in December and suggested, preposterously, that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the jailed Mexican drug kingpin, could pay for it.
Despite Republican subservience to Trump, however, it seems Democrats in Congress will manage to stand fast against Trump’s wall. Every single member of Congress from the border— from Brownsville to San Diego—opposes it, including the sole Republican, Will Hurd of Texas. If Trump declares a national emergency, Congress can act to terminate it. And if Congress can’t get its act together, the last line of defense for the border barons will be federal court.
Texas just successfully opposed a federal taking of farmland along the Red River border with Oklahoma. Although the courts have upheld eminent domain under the Secure Fence Act, a national-security declaration is another matter. The border barons would have standing in court to challenge a declaration—they would be directly affected—and they would have reason on their side. After all, apprehensions of undocumented immigrants are down from 1.6 million in 2000 to 300,000 in 2017. There is no disorder in the streets. Crime in every border city is down. Way down. Among the lowest in the nation.