RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas, March 7 (UPI) -- A father and daughter have begun a legal battle against the federal government to protect their South Texas riverfront houses and property threatened by border wall construction that would be funded through President Donald Trump's national emergency declaration.
"My home means everything to me. What am I to do? I can't just move," said Nayda Alvarez, a high school teacher whose house is 200 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. Her father, Leonel, a retired sheriff's deputy, lives next door.
South Texas border wall construction began during George W. Bush's presidency. But because private landowners own most of the land along the Texas-Mexico border, the government decided a decade ago to use eminent domain to seize land for the wall.
The Trump administration has said it will do the same to property owners like the Alvarezes, who refuse to give the government right of entry to their land for the next phase of border wall construction in South Texas.
On Feb. 15, the president issued a national emergency declaration to give him authority to redirect $6 billion budgeted for military construction and drug interdiction to build the wall.
That day, consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen filed for relief from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Alvarezes and Yvette Gaytan, another affected homeowner. Judge Trevor McFadden has yet to set a court date on the request for an injunction against the national emergency declaration.
The lawsuit alleges the president overstepped his authority by redirecting funds that have not been specifically appropriated by Congress for wall construction.
In court documents, the lawyers said the landowners "were informed that the federal government would seek to build a wall on their properties if money were available in 2019 for construction of a border wall." The lawsuit stated that current wall plans for Nayda Alvarez's property mean "the view from her back door will be of a large wall, rather than the river view that she currently enjoys."
Public Citizen has said the motion for an injunction was the first to be filed against Trump's national emergency declaration. Other lawsuits have since been brought by 16 states and multiple advocacy groups.
"If the lawsuits don't work, I don't know what else will," Alvarez said. "It's land that has been worked. We have sweated into this land. If we lose, it's going to separate our family. This is the one place that my family comes to. This land creates family unity.
"This is my inside heaven. It's my shelter. The wall is going to be behind my home. We are going to have no access to our riverfront property south of the wall."
Alvarez painted "No border wall" on her roof, and last week testified in Congress against the national emergency declaration.
"I am here today to testify that there is no emergency where I live," Alvarez told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. "There is no good reason for the government to take my property to build a border wall in my back yard."
The landowners' congressman, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a longtime border resident, said "the wall creates an unnecessary burden on landowners and takes property away from businesses and families who have lived on the border for generations." Cuellar called the wall "bad policy" and said "it certainly should not be built at the expense of our private property owners."
Cuellar has asked Congress to fund legal representation for low-income families whose properties are affected by the construction.
National emergency disputed
U.S. Customs and Border Protection wrote to the Alvarezes last September seeking permission to survey their land because "Border security tactical infrastructure such as border walls, lighting and roads are critical elements to gain effective control of our nation's borders." The agency also said the wall would "deter illicit cross border activity such as drug smuggling, border violence and illegal immigration."
The agency declined to comment this week because of the pending litigation.
The Alvarezes have refused to grant access and dispute the government's characterization of the activity in their back yard.
"Migrants don't come through here. Border Patrol agents come onto the property but migrants don't. The invaders are the Border Patrol," Leonel Alvarez said. "The government wants to steal our land. I don't think it's justified."
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, also disputed the existence of an emergency.
"Unauthorized immigration is not surging. Terrorists are not invading from Mexico. Illegal drug traffic is coming primarily through legal ports of entry, not open border areas," Weissman said in a press release.
The national emergency is a "legally untenable and an impermissible basis for seeking to obligate funds that Congress has refused to appropriate for a border wall," Public Citizen wrote in court documents.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she welcomed the national emergency declaration, telling the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security that drug smuggling and illegal immigration compromise border security. "This is a crisis -- pure and simple," Nielsen said.
Leonel Alvarez said he refuses to sell the property, and that any eminent domain compensation cannot pay for its "sentimental value."
"My ancestors are turning in their graves," he said. "I was born and raised here. I've never lived anywhere else. This is the place I call home. If they take it away, I'm going to have a problem. My family will have a big problem.
"I'll fight for this land. My days are numbered now, but we are going to stay here. They are going to have to get us out by force if they want this property."
If the government builds the wall, the Alvarezes said their 25-member family will lose access to a well-tended grassy riverfront -- land they use for fishing, barbecues, growing corn and grazing livestock.
"It's not land we can just let go," Nayda Alvarez said. "It defines us."