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Democrats press Trump on plans to seize border wall land from unwilling churches

President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable on immigration and border security at U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station, during a visit to the southern border, Jan. 10, 2019, in McAllen, Texas, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable on immigration and border security at U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station, during a visit to the southern border, Jan. 10, 2019, in McAllen, Texas, with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. AP

Top Senate Democrats want details on President Donald Trump’s plans to use eminent domain to seize land from religious organizations that say a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico violates their religious beliefs.

A letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, shared with the Star-Telegram Thursday, seeks answers from the department on how many religious organizations might be subject to having their land taken for the wall via eminent domain.

Four senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, signed the letter. They cited a lawsuit in the Texas Southern District Court between the Trump administration and the Roman Catholic Church of Brownsville, which owns roughly 65 acres of land near the Texas-Mexico border.

The Brownsville church says it can’t consent to its land being used for any form of border wall construction because the wall is “fundamentally inconsistent with Catholic values” and “would substantially burden the free exercise of religion” by limiting access to its 153-year old La Lomita Chapel.

House Speaker Paul Ryan uses private town hall meeting at Catholic Charities Fort Worth to talk talks about his vision for helping people in poverty and administering welfare and social services.

Roughly 70 percent of the land along the U.S. border with Mexico belongs to entities other than the U.S. government, which can use eminent domain to take property for a variety of purposes, including national security.

The federal government faced similar during President George W. Bush’s administration when it seized land for border barriers. Some of those lawsuits are still pending, while others cost much more the federal government’s original offers.

Though Trump received strong support from many religious leaders and groups in his 2016 race, Catholic organizations have pushed back hard on many of his immigration and border proposals.

Catholic Charities in Fort Worth housed children who were separated from their families at the border under the zero tolerance immigration policy Trump implemented last April.

That organization and others in Fort Worth say that Trump’s plans to limit the number of people who can seek asylum in the country also reduced their ability to do their religious duty of welcoming strangers..

Many Republicans have long used the argument that religious liberties were being compromised as they attacked Democratic policies they don’t like — such as Obamacare’s provision mandating employer-provided health insurance cover birth control.

In 2014 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby’s argument challenging that provision, and the decision allowed some employers to forgo birth control coverage for employees on the basis of the employer’s religious beliefs.

The U.S. government now remains in a partial shutdown over disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over how much money, if any, should be spent to build Trump’s wall. Trump wants $5 billion for the wall, while Democratic senators have offered roughly $1.6 billion for fencing and repairs to current border barriers.

“Eminent domain should not be invoked in violation of any religious organization’s First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion,” wrote Schumer and Sens. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

No Republicans were asked to sign the letter. The senators had not received a response from DHS as of Thursday evening.

In addition to how many religious organizations could be subject to having their land seized, the senators want to know the cost for the land and the timetable for completing acquisition efforts for the wall.



Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.

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