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Public Citizen Files First Lawsuit Challenging “National Emergency”

Public Citizen News / March-April 2019

By Angela Bradbery

This article appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

When President Donald Trump stepped into the White House Rose Garden to announce that he was declaring a national emergency to fund a border wall, Public Citizen was ready.

Anticipating that Trump would declare an emergency to sidestep Congress, Public Citizen already had spoken to people who live along the Texas-Mexico border and on whose land the government wants to build a wall.

So on Feb. 15, just hours after Trump’s declaration, Public Citizen filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of three landowners in South Texas who were told by the government that it would seek to build a border wall on their properties if money were available in 2019, as well as the Frontera Audubon Society, whose members’ ability to observe wildlife will be severely curtailed by the wall and its harmful effects on wildlife near the border.

Public Citizen’s lawsuit was the first in the country to challenge the declaration, and it generated media coverage in major outlets, including the New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, ABC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC. Four more lawsuits subsequently were filed by other groups and by 16 state attorneys general.

Public Citizen is urging the court to hold that Trump exceeded his constitutional authority and authority under the National Emergencies Act.

The court also should bar Trump and the U.S. Department of Defense from using the declaration and funds appropriated for other purposes to build a border wall, the complaint says.

“Words have meaning,” said Allison Zieve, Public Citizen’s counsel for the plaintiffs. “The facts make clear that the premise of the president’s declaration – that the absence of a wall in the areas where construction is planned is an ‘emergency’ – is legally untenable and an impermissible basis for seeking to obligate funds that Congress has refused to appropriate for a border wall.”

As the complaint notes, Trump himself said during a press conference announcing his declaration that he “didn’t need to” invoke emergency power to build a wall, but that he was doing so because he “wanted to do it faster.”

Public Citizen also helped organize protests around the country on Feb. 18 opposing the declaration. Although Congress was slated to vote on a resolution blocking the declaration, it appears unlikely that the measure will pass by enough votes to sustain a veto.

The Frontera Audubon Society is headquartered on a 15-acre nature preserve in Weslaco, Texas, in the Rio Grande valley. The nonprofit is dedicated to preserving wildlife and the native habitat of the Rio Grande valley – one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America. The valley is a major migration corridor and provides more than three-quarters of America’s bird species with migratory, nesting and feeding habitat.

Construction of the border wall and an accompanying enforcement zone would destroy a significant portion of the small amount of remaining habitat along the Rio Grande river.

In addition to the Frontera Audubon Society, the plaintiffs in the suit are three individuals whose families have lived on land near the border for generations.

The home of one of the three is about 200 feet from the Rio Grande river and just feet away from where the wall would be built. Her lot is adjacent to an approximately six-acre tract of land bordering the river that has been in her family for at least five generations. She would be cut off from the portion of her property south of the wall and would lose the use of almost her entire backyard.

Her father, another plaintiff, lives on an approximately one acre lot adjacent to the six-acre tract of land bordering the Rio Grande river that has been in his family for at least five generations. He would be cut off from his family’s property south of the wall.

The third plaintiff also grew up on property along the border. If a border were constructed on her property, she would lose access to her land south of the wall.

“Every halfhearted and palpably fabricated rationale to justify claims of emergency has been thoroughly and embarrassingly debunked,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “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. The real emergency is Trump’s unconstitutional attempt to circumvent Congress and grab power.”