By Stewart M. Powell - The Houston Chronicle - May 16, 2008
WASHINGTON — A drive by the Bush administration to build 70 miles of fencing along the Texas-Mexico border before leaving office could be sidetracked by a lawsuit filed by 19 border communities on Friday.
The Texas Border Coalition, citing what it called lawless conduct by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, asked a U.S. District Court judge here to force the federal government to halt construction of the barrier and land acquisition.
The lawsuit accused Chertoff and others of failing to notify landowners of their rights; failing to negotiate a reasonable price for access to their lands, and of exempting some wealthy owners from having the fence built across their properties.
Chertoff "has gone too far in his zeal to build this feel-good, yet ineffective Great Wall of Texas," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the chairman of the border coalition, which represents cities from Brownsville to El Paso.
Brownsville Mayor Patricio M. Ahumada Jr. charged that federal officials "are determined to build a wall to appease mid-America."
Peter Schey, lead counsel in the case and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said Friday's lawsuit would be followed within days by a request for a temporary restraining order to block land seizures and fence construction.
The case is handled by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, named to the federal bench by President Bush in 2001.
The Bush administration is pressing to complete construction of 670 miles of physical barriers and high-tech virtual fencing along the 1,972-mile U.S.-Mexico border. But the legal wrangling could delay construction of the fence in Texas, pushing decisions on completion of the barriers into next year when a new president and a new Congress will take office.
Laura Keehner, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, called the lawsuit a delaying tactic and said construction will continue.
"There should be no uncertainty about our commitment to border security, and we've made no secret that fencing is a key part of our efforts at the border," Keehner said. "We're building 670 miles of fencing by the end of this year and are well on our way to meeting this goal."
The lawsuit was designed to force federal officials to restart a protracted survey process as a first step to federal purchase.
Chertoff has run "roughshod over the rights of property owners to build a border wall on a foundation of lawlessness," Schey said. "We hope that we are able to bring this lawless conduct to build this wall into conformity with federal statutes and the United States Constitution."
Federal officials intimidated some landowners along the border by sending Homeland Security officials and agents of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Border Patrol to try to arrange access to survey their properties, Schey contended.
The suit also noted that fence construction would bypass the River Bend Resort and golf course, in Brownsville, and border lands owned by Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt and his relatives.
Keehner, Chertoff's spokesman, rejected the lawsuit's allegations.
"We've nearly bent over backward to work with landowners," she said in a statement.
Keehner noted that yearlong discussions had taken place with landowners and state and local officials "about the placement of fencing."
Federal officials, she said, contacted more than 600 landowners, held dozens of town hall meetings and mailed hundreds of letters to property owners "requesting access to private property so that we could make operational and environmental assessments of the area prior to making any decisions."
Border fence construction has become increasingly contentious in Texas, with landowners' resistance forcing federal authorities to file lawsuits against nearly 100 owners in four states in an effort to gain court-ordered access to the land.
A family from Los Ebanos, Texas, awaits a hearing on July 7 before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on its attempt to block access by federal authorities.
The Texas officials' legal challenge is the latest high-profile effort to prevent construction of the fence.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a request by environmentalists and members of Congress to hear a case challenging Chertoff's constitutional authority to waive compliance with three dozen federal laws in order to speed construction of the barriers.
Read more in the Houston Chronicle
The Arlington Texan, a portal to news and coverage of issues and events of and about Arlington, Texas. DFW Regional Concerned Citizens is a sister-site of Grassroots News You Can Use. Visitors can subscribe to issues-specific and county specific action alerts using a simple form on the site. About Air and Water focuses on DFW Regional air quality and water/gas drilling issues. We welcome your feedback.