- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

Despite efforts by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to push ahead with erecting 670 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, even issuing waivers to bypass environmental concerns, a groundswell of opposition is growing - with two more Texas border communities joining in a lawsuit to halt the project.

City officials in El Paso and Presidio this week joined with the Texas Border Coalition (TBC) in a lawsuit charging that Homeland Security officials, including Mr. Chertoff, “blatantly ignored federal law in their zeal” to complete construction of the fence by year’s end and failed to consult with property owners as promised.

Another Texas jurisdiction, Bexar County, adopted a resolution in support of the lawsuit and directed its staff to investigate whether the county has legal standing and, if not, whether to consider other legal measures, including the filing of a “friend of the court” brief.

“We are pleased that El Paso and Bexar County, along with the city of Presidio, are championing the rights of the people of Texas by joining TBC’s lawsuit to keep U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff from building a useless, expensive and potentially damaging wall across the Texas-Mexico border,” said coalition Chairman Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas.

Eight border cities and 10 counties are part of the suit, which charges that Homeland Security was required by law “to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce and quality of life for the communities and residents located near the sites at which such fencing is to be constructed.”

“Secretary Chertoff should not only explain himself, he should do the right thing and halt construction on his expensive and useless one-size-fits-all solution to border security,” Mr. Foster said. “Instead, the secretary should be working toward genuine solutions, with input from local and state officials. Only then will we achieve real security along our nation’s Southern border.”

The lawsuit is the latest escalation in what has become a bitter back-and-forth between the federal government and Texas border officials.

Earlier this year, Mr. Chertoff waived environmental restrictions to push construction of the fence, and his department has gone to court to try to force access to dozens of sites that it said are blocking construction.

Mr. Chertoff has said he waived environmental restrictions to ensure that the project would proceed “without unnecessary delays caused by administrative processes or potential litigation.” He said the waivers would cover the remainder of additional fence construction that he hopes to complete this year.

According to the coalition, top Homeland Security officials were wrong when they said they consulted with local governments, and they have treated Texas communities with indifference or deceit.

But Homeland Security officials said they’ve “nearly bent over backward to work with landowners” and, according to spokeswoman Laura Keehner, “accusations to the contrary are either ill-informed or just plain wrong.” She has said the department contacted more than 600 landowners, held dozens of town hall meetings and participated in a series of local environmental meetings.

“We sent hundreds of letters to landowners and in many cases went door to door requesting access to private property so we could make operational and environmental assessments of the area, prior to making any decisions,” she said.

Mr. Chertoff has said his goal is to have actual fencing along 370 miles and barriers that would allow foot traffic but prevent vehicles on another 300 miles before the end of President Bush’s term.

U.S. businesses on the border rely on Mexicans to cross into the United States daily to buy goods, usually paying with cash. Mexican nationals account for more than $2.3 billion a year in retail spending on the U.S. side of the border, about 27 percent of the total retail trade.

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