Feds sue Texas border towns over Homeland Security “fence”

On Jan. 14, US Attorney Johnny Sutton filed a lawsuit on behalf of the US Department of Justice against the city of Eagle Pass, Texas, to seek access to land for a planned border fence. It was the first of 102 lawsuits expected to be filed in an escalating battle with local landowners and municipalities as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seeks to build 370 miles of new border fencing by the end of the year.

Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster serves as chairperson of the Texas Border Coalition, which has been fighting the border fence construction plans. The coalition says DHS has failed to respond to concerns about the impact the fence will have on the environment, residents’ property access and rights, and the binational way of life along the border, and has ignored local officials’ suggestions for alternatives. (AP, Jan. 15)

Within hours after the suit was filed, and without a hearing, US District Judge Alia Moses Ludlum of the Texas Western District Court, Del Rio division, ordered the city of Eagle Pass to “surrender” 233 acres of city-owned land to the federal government for 180 days so it can begin to build the border fence. The judge’s order said the federal government is entitled to possession or control of the property as requested. (AP, Jan. 16; San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 16)

City Attorney Heriberto Morales said he believed Eagle Pass was the target of the first lawsuit because of Foster’s activism against the fence. “I really think it was to send a statement all along the border, to the other cities and individuals: Let’s go after [Foster] first and everyone else will fall into line.” Brownsville mayor Pat Ahumada agreed: “They picked the one that had the least defenses against the border fence so they can win in court easily and set a precedent and hold a big stick over the rest of us and make us fall in line,” he said.

The city commission of Brownsville voted Jan. 8 to grant access for development of the border fence, said Ahumada, even though he himself voted against allowing access. “It troubles me deeply because [the fence] destroys our ecological corridor, it destroys our historical corridor, it destroys our way of how we perceive ourselves as a binational community,” Ahumada said. Brownsville is reviewing its legal options, he added. The governing board of Brownsville’s city-owned water and electric utility voted against granting access, according to Ahumada. The University of Texas-Brownsville also has not granted access, said school spokesperson Lety Fernandez. (San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 16)

In an order dated Jan. 25 and released Jan. 28, US District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville ordered 10 Cameron County property owners to comply with the US government’s request for access to their land for 180 days to work on the border fence. Hanen denied the federal government’s request that he rule immediately without participation from the landowners, a legal maneuver allowed in eminent domain cases and accepted by Judge Ludlum in the Eagle Pass case. Instead, Hanen ordered the government to inform all property owners of the Jan. 25 hearing. Hanen questioned the government’s efforts at contacting landowners and heard from some property owners and their attorneys at the hearing. “This court will make itself available if needed for the resolution of any disputes, but it expects all parties to act cooperatively and with due concern for the rights and needs of the other parties in the implementation of this order,” Hanen wrote. Hanen also ordered government contractors to work with landowners to make the intrusion as minimal as possible, and denied the government’s request to access properties adjacent to those included in the order.

Access to the properties will end July 23, according to the order. Each property owner will receive $100 for the temporary easement, but will be able to petition for more if their property is damaged. Two additional defendants, including the Brownsville Public Utilities Board, were not included in Hanen’s order because the government was close to reaching settlements with them. (AP, Jan. 29)

From Immigration News Briefs, Jan. 12

See our last post on the struggle for the border.