By Christopher Sherman
Saturday, October 10, 2009
BROWNSVILLE, Tex., Oct. 9 -- Members of Congress have stripped a provision requiring 300 more miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border from a Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill, saying that the money needed would be better spent on alternative security measures.
If the amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had remained in the bill, tall fencing to stop illegal immigrants and smugglers on foot would have been installed along 700 miles of border -- a plan that many officials and residents along the border have opposed.
DeMint's provision said that 300 miles of low-rise vehicle barriers and virtual fencing -- featuring technologies such as cameras and sensors -- planned for the area could not count toward the 700 miles of barrier the U.S. government had promised to build.
The provision was not included in the House's Homeland Security appropriation bill and, when the two bills were melded during conference, seven border-state congressmen asked House leaders to strip the amendment from the final bill.
"The DeMint amendment represented an unproductive and inefficient border security strategy," Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), who represents the border city of Laredo, said in a statement Thursday. "We need to invest and secure our border and our land ports without being tied down to an amendment that is out of touch with border needs."
The General Accounting Office reported last month that maintaining the border fence would cost $6.5 billion during the next 20 years. That would be on top of the $2.4 billion spent to build it.
DeMint voiced his disappointment Friday.
"Democrats are gutting the best tool we have to secure our borders," he said. "Virtual fencing won't solve the problem, and we need a real fence to deter the real problems of illegal immigration, terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking."
On Friday, a federal judge in Brownsville said he sympathized with property owners whose land condemnation cases have dragged on as the government continues to tweak its plans for the border fence. More than 200 south Texas landowners have not settled their condemnation cases with the government, and attorneys for some complained that each change in the government's plans costs their clients money because of the delay and the need for new appraisals.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said his inclination was to deny the property owners' request to dismiss the government's cases, but he would look at any other proposals that would allow property owners to recover some of their expenses. Hanen also left in place an order suspending the government's possession of several pieces of property, preventing construction of one of the final fence segments, east of Brownsville.
The first compensation trial for one of the Texas border fence land condemnation cases is scheduled for December.