Look Who’s Trying to Seize Private Property

The Trump administration wants to use eminent domain to build the border wall.

People picket with signs that say "Unite here" in front of the Trump Taj Mahal casino.
Mark Makela / Reuters

A candidate in the 2020 presidential race wants the federal government to seize the private property of dozens of Texans under the dubious pretext of a national emergency. I refer not to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but to President Donald Trump, whose lack of respect for private-property rights goes back decades.

In the early 1990s, while running casinos, Trump tried to get an elderly widow’s house seized so that he could tear it down and use her land to park limousines. In 1994, he urged a Connecticut municipality to take land owned by five small businesses. In 2005, Trump agreed “100 percent” with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. New London, in which the majority ruled that governments can seize a person’s land and give it to a private corporation if they believe doing so will increase tax revenue. And in 2015, while running for president, Trump called eminent domain “a wonderful thing.”

Now NBC News reports:

The Trump administration is preparing court filings to begin taking over private land to build its long-promised border wall without confirming how much it will pay landowners. In a typical eminent domain case, the government agrees on an amount of money before it seizes the land … According to two officials familiar with the process, however, government attorneys may file under the Declaration of Taking Act in federal court … If the government files under that law and its action survives expected legal challenges the title would automatically transfer to the government. The government has to name the price it expects to pay, but actual negotiations with the landowners about the price don’t begin until after the land is taken.

The approach “is meant to be reserved for emergencies,” the article notes, adding, “Earlier this year the Trump administration declared the situation at the border a national emergency.” Trump’s failure to build a border wall during his first term may be a political emergency for him as he prepares to seek reelection, but no national emergency requires the federal government to quickly seize property from Texas landholders who have gotten along fine for decades without any physical barrier.

If there were a true emergency, those Texans would be clamoring for a wall. In fact, they believe they’re better off with no barrier on their land, having never had one. Still, a Manhattan billionaire and the Washington bureaucrats he appointed insist that they know better.

Their motives are suspect: The Trump administration began claiming an “emergency” only as an end run. “In December of 2018, Democrats refused to allocate funding for the wall in the 2019 budget, and the ensuing standoff with President Trump led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history,” National Review explains. “Trump eventually relented, deciding instead to declare a state of emergency in order to allocate funds from the Pentagon’s budget, in a move a federal judge deemed ‘unlawful’ last month.”

Why won’t Congress fund a border wall? Probably because a majority of Americans oppose new construction. Look for that opposition to grow, winning converts in red Texas, if the government prevails in its effort to forcibly seize private property on the border. Those are real people whose land is being taken, and their stories should be told.