Trump’s wall will require large seizures of private land — and the cost is unknown

Mexico still isn't paying for it.

Taken at the US-Mexico border on March 12, 2018.
Taken at the US-Mexico border on March 12, 2018. A Congolese mother and her seven year old child were reunited after being separated for months following their arrest at the border. CREDIT GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

Of all candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promises, none generated more excitement from his supporters than his vow that he would build a massive wall at the nation’s southern border and that he would miraculously get Mexico to pay the entire cost. When it became obvious that President Trump had no way to keep that promise, his administration proposed spending tens of billions in taxpayer funds on the proposed wall.

But a draft Department of Homeland Security document obtained by ThinkProgress acknowledges that, since the government does not own all of the land along the U.S.-Mexico border, it has no way to predict how much the wall would actually cost to make a reality.

Under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, the federal government has the power to take privately owned property for public purposes (a process known as “eminent domain”) as long as it provides “just compensation” to the owners. This likely means that the government could take whatever land is necessary to build Trump’s wall—but that the cost of “just compensation” could be considerable.

In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on border security and immigration hosted a hearing titled “Building America’s Trust Through Border Security: Progress on the Southern Border,” featuring Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Department Of Homeland Security’s Customs And Border Protection agency. His prepared testimony focused on the importance of stopping illegal immigration, combating drug smuggling, and using enhanced technologies—not Trump’s wall.


But as part of the hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) submitted a series of written questions on the topic of “Border Wall Land,” asking how DHS planned to get the land for the wall and how much it was prepared to play for it. While Hirono’s office says it has not yet received a response, ThinkProgress obtained a draft version of the department’s answers to her questions.

The draft response to Hirono explains that while it is “always DHS’ preference to acquire private property through voluntary sale,” in some cases “condemnation is the only method for acquiring the needed property.”

Asked how much the government is prepared to spend fighting landowners in court, the response text acknowledges, “[a]t this early stage, DHS cannot reasonably forecast total or final land acquisition costs associated with the border wall.” It goes on to state that the FY17 and proposed FY18 budgets “included a rough order of magnitude for real estate costs based on lessons learned from the border fence project,” but then concedes, “CBP cannot estimate or identify any specific or definitive real estate costs or requirements until CBP begins conducting the necessary planning and research.”

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, given a copy of the document to verify, told ThinkProgress that it would have no comment on the document because “the information is still in progress and has not been finalized.”


In October 2015, Trump vowed, “We’re going to build the wall. Hundred percent. And you know, so we’re going to build it. It will be paid for.” But apparently just how much Americans will have to pay to make it happen is another detail not yet worked out.