WASHINGTON — Landowners and political leaders intensified their opposition to a controversial border fence Wednesday after the Justice Department forced the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, to relinquish 233 acres of land in a prelude to constructing the barrier.
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster assailed the Bush administration's actions as "sneaky underhanded measures" as he responded to a district court order forcing the city to temporarily turn over the land. The Justice Department sought the property to allow government surveyors to begin assessing sites for construction of the fence.
"We haven't figured out what we did to make the big guy mad," Foster said.
A U.S. district judge in Del Rio, Texas, ruled in favor of the Bush administration as the Department of Homeland Security began pressing ahead with more than 100 lawsuits to begin seizing property from holdout landowners in Texas, Arizona and California in its efforts to construct hundreds of miles of fencing by the end of the year.
DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner stressed that the lawsuits are designed to give the government temporary access to the land for surveying and site assessment in preparation for construction. At least some of the property, she said, may not wind up as a site for the fence.
"This is just the first step," she said. "There are certain locations where we need to access and survey the land in order to determine where the fence should be built and if so what type."
The DHS is under a congressional mandate to have 670 miles of fencing in place by the end of the year to toughen security on the porous southwestern border. The plan calls for roughly 400 miles of new fencing that will be added to existing barriers.
After months of discussions with municipal officials and protesting landowners, the DHS toughened its stance in December by announcing that it planned to move forward with condemnation proceedings to gain access to the property. The Justice Department suit handled by District Judge Alia Moses Ludlum marked the start of that process.
Foster said Eagle Pass officials were stunned by the development and had no advance notice of the Justice Department intentions. City officials, he said, had been working amicably with the Border Patrol, a branch of the DHS, to help improve enforcement against illegal immigrants.
"We don't know why we got sued," Foster said. He and leaders from other Texas border cities discussed their options in a teleconference but have no plans to file a countersuit, he said. The municipal leaders, he said, hope to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff later this month.
The leader of CASA, a coalition of border area residents and property owners, said the lawsuit likely would prompt the group to step up its opposition to the fence.
"It's outrageous," said Elizabeth Garcia of Brownsville, Texas. "They're taking away from the people their basic rights."
The umbrella group, which represents 12 organizations and includes at least three holdout landowners, will consult its attorneys to map out possible recourse. Members of the coalition, who have held several demonstrations, also plan "door-to-door" visits in cities along the border to enlist more opponents to the fence.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the border city of Laredo, Texas, said he understands the anger and frustration along the border but said the DHS is responding to legislation that Congress passed requiring fencing along the border.
"I support the border communities," he said, "but the law's the law."
Mike Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said government planners are approaching the project with "a sense of urgency" but must first complete environmental and engineering assessments before beginning construction. He declined to speculate on the construction start date.