Border fence’s legal battle grows

The battle over the border fence continued Thursday with more landowners finding themselves sued by the government for access to their land, while two landowners fired back with their own countersuit. A lawsuit by University of Texas-Brownsville Professor Eloisa Tamez and San Benito resident Benito J. Garza claims the Homeland Security Department disregarded the law by filing “declarations of taking” before negotiating a price for their land.

The government sued both for six months of access to plot the fence.

During a two-hour hearing before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen on the government’s lawsuit, attorney Peter Schey said two acts of Congress prohibited the declarations of taking, or expedited condemnation, for the fence.

“The judge was very patient, very receptive,” Schey said. “He made very clear that this was the first time anybody has brought this to his attention and he’s really going to have to step back and contemplate.”

After a previous hearing, Hanen granted government access the same day.

Tamez said she is a descendant of the Lipan Apache and Basque peoples and her acre of land has been in the family for 265 years.

According to the complaint against Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Robert F. Janson, acting executive director of asset management for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 precluded the government from using expedited condemnation for border fencing. It says expedited condemnation was again ruled out by an amendment to the federal budget bill requiring consultation with locals.

The government’s reply to the complaint, filed Wednesday, says government officials are seeking only “minimally intrusive, non-exclusive” temporary access to plan the fence.

“Whatever concerns might be applicable to the actual permanent taking of land in fee for fence construction are simply not relevant at this time,” it says.

The Department of Homeland Security said it expects about 100 lawsuits against landowners. Twelve more landowners were sued Tuesday, bringing the total to about 50.

The parcels targeted so far include 132 acres owned by the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District and 166 acres of the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College.

UTB President Juliet Garcia has refused to sign a right of entry request but the school has not been sued. University of Texas regents meeting in the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday adopted a resolution urging “all involved to continue the dialogue and work cooperatively.”

But Rio Grande City schools Superintendent Roel A. Gonzalez said much of the district was built around Fort Ringgold, a historic Mexican War fort, and he’s prepared to fight for the lands and the riverfront.

“It’s a beautiful fort, it really is. It has a lot of history,” he said.