US family stranded on south side of border fence

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CNN) — D’Ann Loop awoke just before dawn to the smell of smoke as flames spread through her ranch home. She and her husband, Ray, rousted their daughter out of bed, called 911 and fled outside with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

They could hear the wail of a fire truck’s siren and thought help was on its way.

But the minutes ticked by. Soon, their house and barn were entirely engulfed in flames. The horses got out, but other pets — six dogs, a cat, more than four-dozen baby chicks and a guinea pig — were trapped inside.

“We had a little miniature goat, he was on fire and he was running out of the structure screaming,” said D’Ann, tearing up at the memory of the Jan. 11 ordeal. “We all stood in the yard and we had to listen to their cries, burning alive.”

By the time the fire engine arrived there was nothing to save. But it was hardly the firefighters’ fault: An 18-foot border fence had blocked their way.

Though the Loops’ home is on US territory, it is located on the other side of the country’s border fence. The family was essentially locked out of its own country when the fence was built a decade ago.

That’s because construction of a border barrier is complicated by concerns over the environment, geography, topography and other matters. It doesn’t always follow the true border between Mexico and the US.

If President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to build a border wall, such quirky property arrangements are expected to arise more often, stranding more US citizens.

Federal officials say it was unfortunate some families wound up on the wrong side of the fence. They estimated it happened about a dozen times, but declined to discuss specific cases, including the Loops’.

In a statement to CNN, the US Department of Justice said that as part of the country’s “long-standing national security policy, it is sometimes necessary to acquire lands at the nation’s borders.”

In the Loops’ case, most of their property, which runs along the Rio Grande River, is south of the border fence about two miles away. The Loops gain access to the US through a gate that is always locked.

“We’ve learned to live with it,” Ray said. “But when you come home and you enter the border gate, you punch your code in and you come behind the border wall, there is a feeling of isolation…like you’re on your own.”

D’Ann, a retired school teacher, put it like this.

“We say over and over again, we feel like we’re in Mexico. People ask us that… And I said, ‘No, we’re still in the U.S.. I’m a U.S. Citizen.’ …No, I’m not a Mexican. We just live on the Mexico side of the fence.”

The fence now stands piecemeal across parts of the southern border. Currently, only about 650 miles of the 2,000-mile border are covered. Trump has promised to erect a wall across most, if not all, of the border.

To do that, the federal officials are going to have to seize private property just as they did when they started building the border fence in 2006. The government acquired the land from ranchers and farmers under a law known as “eminent domain.”

A CNN analysis of more than 400 federal lawsuits filed in connection with the border fence found that landowners always lost their property. In many cases, the government offered them thousands of dollars less than the land was worth.

Like so many other ranchers, the Loops were shocked to learn that the government wanted a part of their land.

“I was very angry,” D’Ann said. “How can they do that? How is that possible in the United States that they can do this, put up a fence in front of our land, and then keep us in here? You know, lock us in?”

The Loops’ 350-acre ranch is part of more than a thousand acres held by several siblings of the family, which has owned the land since 1921. Many of the family plots are nestled alongside the Rio Grande River.

Federal authorities initially offered the Loops $10,100 for their land. That’s when they hired an attorney.

Though they had little hope of preventing the federal take-over, they thought the compensation was significantly less than the property was worth. And, by putting much of the family’s land on the south side of the fence, the value of the property that wasn’t seized plummeted.

The litigation dragged on for years. Ultimately, a judge agreed the Loops were shortchanged and ordered that they receive about $1.39 million for the land and associated “damages” to their property and home caused by being on the opposite side of the fence. But after paying attorney fees and splitting the settlement with another family member, the Loops said they walked away with about $640,000.

The compensation was among the highest given to a property owner, according to CNN’s review of lawsuits. But the family says the settlement did not make them rich. For a working farm, the Loops said, the amount was small, especially considering the hardships caused by being locked out of their own country.

“Was it fair? No,” said Ray.

The gate alone, he said, is “a big headache” because it only works a third of the time and often gets stuck.

The Loops said they tried to get a loan a couple years ago, but bank officials denied them because their land was on the Mexican side of the fence.

The Loops have long despised the fence. Now they dread the idea of a border wall.

Such barriers, they say, are not effective. They believe a better policy would be hiring more border patrol agents and investing more in technology and surveillance.

Over the years, they have seen their share of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers crossing the border– sometimes right through their property.

“Thinking that coming in and building an 18 or a 20 or a 25-foot structure is gonna stop it? It’s ridiculous,” Ray said. “It’s not gonna happen. It’ll slow it down, or is a deterrent, but it is not gonna solve the problem.”

Despite the indignity of living south of the border fence, the Loops’ love for their land means they are not interested in moving. Even the fire hasn’t deterred them.

They are already building a new home on their land.

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