WASHINGTON—The Department of Homeland Security, hoping to mute an uproar across the border reaches of Texas, fired off letters to more than two dozen local officials Friday to assure them that no final decisions had been made on the placement of a controversial border fence.
The letters—dispatched to sheriffs and political leaders in 16 cities and 18 counties—came in response to an angry reaction stirred by the disclosure of confidential DHS memos and maps detailing plans for a 153-mile stretch of the border fence in Texas. The Texas barrier is part of more than 700 miles of fencing that Congress mandated last year along all four U.S. states bordering Mexico.
"No final decisions have been made on where all of the fencing will be constructed," said the letter, co-signed by W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of Homeland Security, and Anne P. Petera, DHS assistant secretary for intergovernmental programs.
The letter-writing blitz came two days after south Texas business and political leaders held a news conference in Austin to accuse federal authorities of reneging on promises to work closely with them in laying out the barrier. Many local leaders have said DHS officials led them to believe that the barrier would primarily be a "virtual wall" consisting of high-tech surveillance, instead of a traditional fence.
Details of DHS plans came to light as federal authorities began contacting landowners about the fence, raising fears that the government planned to seize land through its power of eminent domain. But the two DHS officials said they were concerned that e-mails about the planned construction "did not adequately represent DHS' approach to this issue."
"Fencing is an important component of our effort to secure U.S. borders, but we recognize the potential impact that fencing could have on your community," said the DHS officials.
The maps, said Basham and Petera, were intended as "a starting point for a dialogue with state and local officials, landowners and other local stake-holders" after federal border officials developed a list of potential fencing locations. But the two officials promised to honor DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's commitment to work with local officials before cementing final plans.
DHS press secretary Russ Knocke said department officials felt the DHS positions "need to be clarified" in light of the local response. South Texas officials used phrases like "wall of shame" and "iron curtain" and said the wall would create an economic and environmental disaster in their part of the state.