WASHINGTON — A coalition of Texas community leaders on Friday sued the Department of Homeland Security over the construction of a controversial fence on the Southwest border, saying the DHS trampled the rights of property owners in acquiring land for the project.
The suit, filed in a federal district court in Washington, accuses Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and DHS officials of violating numerous laws and regulations and effectively coercing Texas property owners to turn over land for the fence without consultation.
DHS officials denied the assertions.
"We've nearly bent over backward to work with landowners," said DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner. "Accusations to the contrary are either ill-informed or just plain wrong."
Representatives of the Texas Border Coalition, composed of cities and counties along Texas' 1,200-mile border with Mexico, outlined the lawsuit at a press conference. Peter Schey, the lead counsel for the coalition, said he plans to seek a preliminary injunction that would require the government to restart the land acquisition process, stopping work on at least a portion of the fence.
The lawsuit is the latest, and most extensive, legal action brought against the Bush administration in an attempt to block pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers that the DHS is building across all four states that border Mexico. It could further complicate the administration's efforts to complete the targeted 670 miles of fencing by Dec. 31.
Environmentalists, with support from more than a dozen members of Congress, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing on their contention that Chertoff violated the Constitution by waiving compliance with 36 laws to expedite work on the fence. Chertoff said he was authorized to do so under the REAL ID Act of 2005.
Schey accused Chertoff of "lawless conduct" and said the DHS ignored border landowners' statutory rights to negotiate reasonable prices for their land before it was seized by the government. The suit also contends that the department gave politically well-connected property owners a pass on having the border fence built on their properties.
The DHS has gone to court with 86 condemnation suits to gain access to land in Texas, California and New Mexico, including a high-profile case against Eagle Pass, Texas. Two families in Los Ebanos, a small community in Texas' Hidalgo County, have filed an appeal with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenging a lower court's decision favoring the DHS.
Chertoff, who is named as a defendant in the suit, has said that the department has attempted to negotiate with landowners but was forced to file the condemnation suits against hold-out landowners, who he said were effectively trying to wield a "veto" over the fence. The department contends that it has consistently complied with the law in carrying out the multibillion-dollar project.
Keehner said the DHS has been working with local communities for more than a year and has negotiated with more than 600 landowners.
Texas Mayors Chad Foster of Eagle Pass, Raul Salinas of Laredo and Pat Ahumada of Brownsville reiterated fierce opposition to the fence, saying it would undermine economic and cultural relations with Mexican communities on the other side of the Rio Grande.
"We shouldn't be building walls," said Ahumada. "We should be building alliances with Mexico. The wall is not the solution."
A representative of the Mexican Embassy attended the news conference as an observer but declined to take a position on the lawsuit. The Mexican government also has strongly opposed the fence.
The suit recycled news reports that the fence will bypass a popular resort and property owned by Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt, a friend of President Bush who contributed $35 million to Southern Methodist University to help build Bush's presidential library.