Officials say two words are striking fear in the hearts of Texas landowners who have been contacted in recent days about handing over their riverfront property for a massive border wall: eminent domain.
That's the term for the government's power to condemn private land for public use, and some say it's being thrown around in South Texas, where federal authorities are actively planning to build more than 125 miles of fencing, officials say.
"Right now, landowners are very, very reluctant to have this happen," said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar met with landowners last week in tiny Roma, in the Rio Grande Valley, where officials are eyeing numerous private tracts for the wall. He said officials with the Department of Homeland Security mentioned its condemnation authority "within the first 15 words" spoken to landowners in recent meetings in the district he represents.
"Keep in mind we can take away your property through eminent domain," the officials said, according to Cuellar. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Democrat who represents Roma in the Legislature, said landowners in his district want Congress to halt the wall before their land is seized.
But Border Patrol spokesman Xavier Rios said he is not aware of any current discussions about condemnation of private land for a border wall. He said that authorities are reaching out to private landowners and seeking their cooperation and that forceful condemnation "is not even being considered right now."
"Our goal is to work with the landowners. They are our partners in this, and we work on their property on a daily basis," Rios said. "The amount of property that would be used for this is only the property that has been identified as essential for completion of the project." Rios also said environmental assessments could be conducted before construction begins.
President Bush signed legislation last year calling for a 700-mile border wall, which has strong backing from many conservative immigration activists. About $1.2 billion has been appropriated so far to build the first phase of the wall, officials said.
For now, southern Arizona is the only place where new physical barriers have gone up, along with heavier patrols and increased technological surveillance, according to Rios.
But in Arizona, much of the land is already owned by the federal government.
In Texas, where most of the riverfront is in private hands, landowners have expressed fears that a wall will disrupt cattle and ranching operations, block access to the Rio Grande and - unless they agree to the government's financial terms - spur nasty court battles over the condemnation of private property.
In recent days, federal authorities have begun contacting wary landowners about moving forward with plans to build more than 125 miles of barriers, according to federal records and political leaders. How much will actually be built is not clear.
Documents obtained by the Star-Telegram, including a color-coded map, show areas along the Texas-Mexico border where authorities are looking to install physical barriers. All told, they are hoping to build 370 miles of fencing in the four border states before the end of 2008, officials said.
Nearly 90 miles of it is planned for the Rio Grande Valley area, south of Laredo, most of it on private land; in the El Paso area, authorities are eyeing the installation of some 25 miles of fencing on federal land, records show.
Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass, is one of several border-area officials who met with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff a few weeks ago to discuss the border wall. He said Chertoff stressed that the Border Patrol would seek alternatives to walls and considers the new map and proposals to run "contrary to what the secretary led us to believe."
Foster said he supports greater security and federal manpower on the border, and he noted that the number of immigrants caught trying to sneak across the border has dropped significantly in recent months.
"If we're seeing the numbers go down, why are we jacking with it?" Foster said.
Rios, the Border Patrol spokesman, said apprehensions along the Mexican border dropped 30 percent through March from the same period in the previous year, and even more for immigrants who come from somewhere besides Mexico.
Advocates say a border wall will help stem the flow of illegal immigrants and possibly stop terrorist attacks. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a private border watch group, has sent volunteers to build fences for willing ranchers, promoting a design modeled after Israeli walls designed to keep militants out of the West Bank and Gaza.
But in Texas, a top Minuteman acknowledged that landowners are concerned about losing their land or river access, even though they want more protection from human trafficking and drug violence.
"There's some concern about water rights and eminent domain," said Pat Byrne, deputy director of the state Minuteman chapter. "I think what they would like to see is good, solid, firm protection on their property without the financial obstruction that would result from the fence."
Ft Worth TX Star-Telegram: http://www.star-telegram.com