Texas residents resist border wall

On Dec. 7, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would give landowners in South Texas 30 days to consent to letting federal officials survey their properties to determine whether they are suitable for a planned border fence. If the owners don’t give permission, Chertoff said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will turn to the courts to gain temporary access. If the agency finds the land appropriate for fencing and landowners refuse to cooperate, the department will seek court action to confiscate the land. (Los Angeles Times, Brownsville Herald, Dec. 8) Chertoff said the DHS needs access to 225 miles of noncontiguous land, most of it in Texas and Arizona, in order to build 370 miles of border fencing by the end of 2008.”The door is still open to talk, but it’s not open for endless talk,” Chertoff said. “We won’t pay more than market price for the land,” he added.

Ranchers and farmers in Texas, where much of the land along the border is privately owned, say the fence would cut off their access to the Rio Grande, the only regional source of fresh water. Business groups also complain that the fencing will slow cross-border traffic crucial for local economies. Juan D. Salinas, a judge and chief administrator of the local government in Hidalgo County, Texas, said the community opposes the planned fence based on economic, cultural and environmental concerns. “I tell you, on this one issue, the Farm Bureau, the United Farm Workers, Democrats and Republicans, white, black, brown, everybody is against the border fence. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Salinas. “It’s a disappointment that again the Department of Homeland Security is not listening to local taxpayers.”

DHS contacted some 600 owners and held town hall meetings in border communities to explain the fence project. Chertoff said two-thirds of Texans who were approached agreed to give DHS access to their land, a quarter did not respond, and about 10% refused. The agency mailed about 150 letters on Dec. 7 to landowners who have not yet given permission, warning them of the 30- day deadline. DHS officials say California landowners have been cooperative and “relatively few” will be receiving such letters. (LAT, Dec. 8)

One of the Texas landowners who is resisting is 72-year-old Dr. Eloisa Garcia Tamez, an elder of the Lipan Apache tribe who works as director of the nursing department at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. (BH, Dec. 8; e-mail alert from Margo Tamez, daughter of Eloisa Garcia Tamez, Nov. 16) In late November, two men from the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) knocked on Tamez’s door and asked for permission to survey her property in El Calaboz, a rural community along the Rio Grande, 10 miles west of Brownsville. They were seeking her consent to enter, survey and store equipment on her property for 12 months. But Tamez has refused to sign. “I will protect this land just like my ancestors did,” she said. Tamez’s family has occupied the same tract of land in El Calaboz since 1784. The proposed wall would leave the majority of her land on the south side of the barrier. When Tamez told a CBP representative that she wouldn’t consent to the conditions of the land surveyors, he replied: “Have you heard of eminent domain?” (BH, Dec. 8)

Eloisa Tamez’s daughter, poet Margo Tamez, spoke about her mother’s resistance to the wall at Yakima Valley Community College in Yakima, Washington, on Nov. 29. She said El Calaboz residents, along with landowners in Arizona, are being pressured and intimidated by men in military and Border Patrol uniforms to grant the government access to their land. Margo Tamez pointed out that indigenous peoples were separated when borders were drawn on a map. “The US-Mexico border is a good place to see how we’re related,” Tamez said. “We don’t believe in borders. We’ve lived on this land for over 10,000 years.” (Yakima Herald-Republic, Dec. 1)

Residents of El Calaboz were first contacted by authorities about the wall in August. Since then, they’ve met at local churches and in the homes of community members to discuss the plan. “They told us they will pay fair market value for the land where the wall will be built,” said 76-year-old Idalia Benavidez, who like Eloisa Tamez is a descendant of the original residents of the area. Benavidez consented to the federal government’s land survey but is unhappy about the wall’s proposed route—which is not along the border, but along a levee north of the Rio Grande. The planned wall would separate her home from pasture land south of the levee where her family keeps their cows. If the wall is built, her 80-year-old husband, Jose Benavidez, would have to drive to a checkpoint three miles from their home, then cut back another three miles along the levee in order to reach the cows to feed them. “Raising and selling those cows is how we pay our taxes,” said Idalia Benavidez. (BH, Dec. 8)

From Immigration News Briefs, Dec. 9

See our last posts on the immigration crackdown and the struggle for the border.