WASHINGTON - The federal government is preparing to go to court to force dozens of property owners in the southwestern U.S. to give it access to their land for possible construction on it of a U.S.-Mexico border fence.
The government is readying 102 cases to gain entry to lands along the border owned by private individuals, local governments and others. A deadline for many of the owners to grant entry passed Monday or should expire in a matter of days.
Of the total cases, 71 are against Texas landowners, 20 against Californians and 11 against Arizona landowners. No cases are expected against New Mexico landowners.
The Homeland Security Department wants to build 370 miles of fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of the year. It says some of the properties may not be needed, but it needs to assess which ones it may need to purchase or seize through eminent domain for the fence or other barriers.
In a news conference Dec. 7, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made clear there's a limit to how long he'll wait.
"The door is still open to talk if people want to engage with us, if they have some alternative ideas. But it's not open for endless talk. We do need to get moving on this proposition," he told reporters.
One of the holdouts is 72-year-old Eloisa Garcia Tamez who owns three acres of property in El Calaboz, Texas, a community about 12 miles west of Brownsville, a city at the southernmost tip of Texas. Tamez said her property was part of a Spanish land grant and her grandfather was Lipan Apache, a tribe not officially recognized by the federal government but known to have existed in South Texas and Mexico.
"I'm waiting for whatever they've got coming and I'm not going to sign. I'm not," said Tamez, the director of the master of science and nursing program at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
Tamez is part of a group of other opponents of the border fence who say the Department of Homeland Security is violating the rights of indigenous landowners, descendants of Native Americans and other people who claim ancestral rights to the land or whose families were awarded property through Spanish land grants.
Peter Schey, executive director of The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, warned Chertoff in a letter Monday that Tamez will take court action under domestic and international laws to protect her land rights.
Officials are considering building the fence north of a levee that crosses the property, which she fears would make much of her land inaccessible. She was told she could get access to the land south of the fencing through a gate that would be manned and be located 3 miles from her property.
"Here we are, American citizens, and have to go through a checkpoint to go through our own property," Tamez said. "If they come in and do all that they are going to, they'll leave me with nothing. Even though it may be small, I stand to lose more."
A 2006 law signed by President Bush mandates a 700-mile fence along the border. But the sweeping government spending bill passed signed by President Bush last month softened the law's mandates. It gave Chertoff leeway in deciding whether the 700 miles of fencing is needed and required he consult with local, state and federal officials before building the fence.
Schey said Chertoff should have to start over with his border fence plans because of that law and first hold "serious consultation" with possibly effected landowners and others who may be affected.
"By then Chertoff won't have his job anymore and we will have a new administration and the new administration will take a look at the need for this wall," Schey said.