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Texas cities oppose border fence

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EAGLE PASS, Texas — Chad Foster, mayor of this Texas border city whose motto is "Where Yee-Hah meets Ole," isn't itching for a fight with the federal government over the construction of a 15-foot border fence along the Rio Grande. But if one comes, he's ready.

As is Efrain V. Valdez, mayor of Del Rio, Texas, located 56 miles upriver from here, who also has vowed to challenge a $1.2 billion plan by the Department of Homeland Security to build security fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, including a 65-mile stretch on the western edges of Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

"I'm speaking for 45,000 people when I say that those who want this fence don't understand the border, don't understand our sense of community," Mr. Valdez said. "We are loyal, devoted Americans. We are not against border security, not against the construction of fences where it makes sense."

Even Maverick County Judge Jose A. Aranda Jr., a former mayor of Eagle Pass and an outspoken critic of the border fence proposal, thinks Homeland Security's much-ballyhooed efforts to build a border fence is nothing more than a "knee-jerk reaction" to the failure by Congress and the Bush administration to pass a meaningful immigration reform package.

"The fence is a way for the politicians in Washington to convince the American people that they're doing something about illegal immigration," Judge Aranda said. "But it's simply an illusion."

They are not alone in their opposition. Similar concerns are being expressed all along the south Texas border, where many civic and community leaders, along with private landowners, have been threatened by the federal government with eminent domain challenges or served with lawsuits.

Nearly 400 municipal officials, community leaders, private landowners and others have been given 30 days to decide whether they will give federal officials access to their properties or face the legal consequences. Lawsuits are being sought against those who refuse.

More than two dozen landowners or public officials, 11 in Texas alone, have been ordered by federal judges, urged by U.S. attorneys appointed by President Bush, to grant the access. Many of those targeted have pledged to block efforts by Homeland Security to survey the proposed fence sites or to begin construction.

"They came in here from Washington like storm troopers, dictating what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," said Mr. Foster in describing Homeland Security efforts to explain its fence project. "They steamrolled us. We tried telling them that in building a fence on this border, one size does not fit all.

"Instead, we found out they had no idea of what life is like on the border, and many couldn't find the Rio Grande with a map," he said.

Mr. Valdez, a former city council member and a Del Rio teacher and coach for 35 years, said Homeland Security proposed 65 miles of fencing along the border from just north of Del Rio to south of Eagle Pass. He said the department put the plan into motion "without consulting anyone."

"Congress passed a law mandating construction of a border fence here without any input from anyone who lives along this river," he said.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said "there should be no ambiguity about the department's top priority — securing the homeland." She said the department has "championed" the combination of traditional fencing, manpower and technology to help meet the goal.

"We have been steadfast in our commitment to building 370 miles of pedestrian fence and 300 miles of vehicle fence by the end of this year," she said.

"At the direction of our leadership, our Customs and Border Patrol agents have been working diligently to reach out to and work with state and local officials, leaders and landowners all along the Southwest border," she said, adding that Homeland Security officials held more than 18 town hall meetings and more than 600 meetings with landowners.

"Anyone who says we have not consulted with the local groups has either not paid attention or is misleading the public," she said. "A perfect example is when Secretary Chertoff traveled to Texas a few weeks ago to announce the collaborative efforts in Hidalgo County and our moving forward with fence construction there that is combined with existing levees."

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 called for the construction of 745 miles of double-layered reinforced fencing on the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, along with physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras and sensors in an effort to establish "operational control" of the border.

The fences were to be built on a 20-mile stretch of border near Tecate, Calif.; a 292-mile section from Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz.; a 150-mile stretch from Columbus, N.M., to El Paso, Texas; a 65-mile section from Del Rio to Eagle Pass; and a 218-mile stretch from Laredo, Texas, to Brownsville, Texas.

But Homeland Security has since whittled down the project, saying it now plans to build just 370 miles of single-tier pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of this year. The new figures are based on "operational assessments" by the Border Patrol, which identified locations where new fences would better secure the border.

The department's scaled-back fence proposal has been criticized by several members of Congress, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who said the fencing is "critical" in preventing and deterring illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

Mr. Hunter said the Secure Fence Act required the construction of double-layered fencing at strategic points along the border, but that Homeland Security had "done little" to meet those goals. He also said the single-tier fencing and vehicle barriers proposed by Homeland Security will "do little, if anything, to stop illegal immigration."

He has introduced the Reinstate the Secure Fence Act, which requires the construction of 700 miles of border fencing within six months of the bill's enactment.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, has questioned the Bush administration's "unilateral decision to defer until future years the apportionment of funds" for the construction of the border fence.

Mr. Byrd said despite a bipartisan consensus in Congress to dedicate more resources to secure the nation's borders, the administration has made little progress "in deploying security measures on our Southern border."

Those security measures, including the fences, were supposed to be erected after consultations with state and local officials, but Mr. Foster and Mr. Valdez said their input was never sought and that attempts they made to offer viable alternatives to the fence were rejected outright by Homeland Security officials in Washington.

As members of the Texas Border Coalition, a group of mayors, county judges and other community leaders from cities and towns on the Texas border, they said Mr. Chertoff and other department officials were focused solely on building a fence and did not respond to coalition concerns about its effect on the environment, whether landowners would lose access to their property and whether there was an alternative to its construction.

They also said the department failed to answer inquiries whether the fence would disrupt the "binational way of life" on the border.

"We met with Chertoff and other department officials but were never given a chance to express our views," said Mr. Valdez, disputing claims by Homeland Security that it held 18 town hall sessions with local residents about the project. "They really didn't want to listen to us."

Not true, according to a federal official familiar with the meetings, who said the town hall efforts included meetings with Mr. Foster, his staff and members of the City Council. The official also said the Border Patrol has held "multiple meetings with individual landowners and groups of ranchers," and spoken with city planners and other city officials.

"Telephone calls don't count as a town hall meeting," Mr. Foster said. "They came in here intent to build that fence and didn't want to hear what we had to say."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of Homeland Security, has since brought a condemnation lawsuit against Eagle Pass. The first of more than 100 lawsuits that are expected to be filed, it seeks to force the city of 22,413 to surrender 233 acres of city-owned land for the fence project.

The suit was filed by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio on behalf of the Justice Department. Without a hearing, U.S. District Judge Alia Moses Ludlum in Del Rio ordered Eagle Pass to "surrender" the land to the federal government for 180 days so it could begin the fence project.

Judge Aranda said Eagle Pass was targeted because the government wanted to "send a message" to other border cities concerning Mr. Foster's opposition to the fence project and because of his involvement in the Texas Border Coalition. As one of the smallest border cities involved, he said Eagle Pass was "the most likely target."

The coalition agreed, saying that in "the most egregious eminent domain cases, the party whose land is being taken is given his or her day in court. The people of Texas should be outraged by the sneaky, underhanded methods used by the Department of Homeland Security to steal 233 acres from the people of Eagle Pass."

"Informing the city after the judge ruled that their land is already taken is not the Texan or American way of justice," the coalition said. "It demonstrates again that we are losing our liberties to a federal government that is without restraint and out of control."

But Mr. Foster said Eagle Pass, which will appeal the ruling, never denied the Border Patrol or other federal agencies access to the targeted property, which includes the city's golf course on the banks of the Rio Grande. He called the government's lawsuit "heavy-handed."

Meanwhile, Mr. Foster and Mr. Valdez said they continue to seek a compromise on the fence, working with the Border Patrol sector office in Del Rio, which includes Eagle Pass. They said the two cities and local Border Patrol officials have agreed so far to 2.2 miles of fence in Del Rio and 1.9 miles in Eagle Pass as part of a draft environmental assessment approved Jan. 24.

Both credited Border Patrol Sector Chief Randy Hill in Del Rio, along with Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Alan L. Langford, for making sure their concerns were heard and acted on. They said additional fencing needs in Del Rio and Eagle Pass are expected to be addressed in the near future.

They noted, however, that the compromise still has to be approved in Washington and they said they did not trust Mr. Chertoff to follow through on the local proposals.

"We actually were talking with the Border Patrol here and had allowed them access to the site they wanted when we were sucker-punched by Chertoff with this lawsuit," Mr. Foster said. "It appears the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."

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