Border Fence Would Slice Through Private Land

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

EL CALABOZ, Tex. -- In the 240 years since the Spanish Crown granted Eloisa Tamez's colonial ancestors title to this flat, grassy expanse along the Rio Grande's northern bank, her family has steadily lost its holdings to the Mexican War of Independence, the U.S. annexation of Texas and the Great Depression.

Now Tamez faces what could prove the final blow: The Department of Homeland Security has proposed building a section of the U.S-Mexico border fence mandated by Congress directly through the last three acres of the family's original 12,000-acre tract.

But the 72-year-old nursing professor has a message for any government officials who expect her to leave quietly. "I'm not going down without a fight," Tamez said, her dark eyes narrowing as she gazed beyond her back yard toward a field where she used to pick tomatoes as a child. "My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather farmed this land. This is the land that gave me my life and my spirit. . . . I will fight this all the way."

Across South Texas, dozens of landowners and municipal leaders are making similar vows, mounting a concerted effort to prevent government surveyors from even examining their properties, let alone erecting the fence on them.

Their resistance raises questions about how quickly the Homeland Security Department would be able to build an effective border fence at a time when politicians across the spectrum insist that it must be completed before further solutions to the presence of millions of illegal immigrants can be considered.

Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the department was instructed to secure about one-third of the 2,000-mile Mexican border with 700 miles of double-layered fencing. However, department officials have since whittled that down to a plan for about 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers to be finished by the end of 2008.

Last year, the department completed the first 123 miles of vehicle barriers and 165 miles of fencing, much of it on federally owned land in Arizona, California and New Mexico. This year, a substantial portion of the remaining miles of fencing probably will be installed in Texas, where much border land is held privately -- and where ties to Mexico remain strong.

In December, officials sent warning letters to 135 private landowners, municipalities, universities, public utility companies and conservation societies along the border that had turned away surveyors. Landowners were given 30 days to change their minds or face legal action. More than 100 of them -- 71 in Texas -- let the deadline pass.

Over the past several weeks, U.S. attorneys acting on behalf of the Homeland Security Department have been filing lawsuits against the holdouts. Already, federal district judges have ordered one landowner in California, 11 in Arizona and 11 in Texas -- including the small city of Eagle Pass -- to temporarily surrender their properties. The mayor of Eagle Pass, which is located about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio and stands to lose 233 acres of city-owned land, said the city is planning to appeal. Suits are also pending against 14 landowners in California and 44 in South Texas, including Tamez.

News of the lawsuits has sent a chill through the chain of tiny centuries-old South Texas settlements that dot the Rio Grande like beads on a necklace. Like Tamez, many residents of these hamlets are descendants of the Spanish settlers who colonized the region in the late 1700s. But significant numbers of them are now impoverished, and even those who have become middle-class professionals, such as Tamez, lack deep pockets for a legal battle.

Nonetheless, many are following the example of Tamez, a widow who has sought free legal help from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.

Much of their determination stems from practical concerns. According to preliminary maps, large stretches of the proposed fence would be located more than a mile inland from the river, cutting off substantial swaths of land.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company