WASHINGTON — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said Thursday that they hoped to start building a border fence in Texas within several months, and they denied assertions that they've failed to consult with Texas border communities about the project.
"Our doors are open," U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said. "We welcome the consultation process."
A delegation of Texas border officials accused the federal government of stiff-arming their attempts to present alternatives to the fence, which has stirred intense opposition along parts of Texas' 1,250-mile border with Mexico.
Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is proceeding with condemnation suits to gain access to land for the fence, including legal action forcing Eagle Pass, Texas, to relinquish 233 acres.
Greg Giddens, the executive director of Customs and Border Protection's Secure Border Initiative — a project to erect radars, cameras and other high-tech measures to reinforce traditional fencing — said the department hoped to start construction in late spring or early summer.
The Bush administration is under a congressional mandate to have 670 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers in place by the end of the year in the four states that border Mexico. The plan calls for adding roughly 400 miles of new fencing to existing barriers.
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, one of the most outspoken critics of the fence plan, said city officials had been meeting with attorneys to consider a response to the condemnation proceedings.
"We're fighting the battle of Eagle Pass against our own government," Foster said, contending that the federal government had "sucker-punched" his border town of 22,500 residents.
Foster, the chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, appeared before the House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security along with a representative of the Texas Sheriffs Coalition and private landowners from Texas and Arizona.
Foster and landowner Jim Ed Miller of Fort Hancock, Texas, said the government had refused to consider options to fencing that would make the Rio Grande river, which divides Texas and Mexico, much more difficult to cross. Alternatives includes levees, widening projects and the eradication of cane that can conceal illegal crossers.
Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., said the law required the Department of Homeland Security to consult with property owners before building the fence. But Foster said that local officials had been rebuffed when they tried to open consultations with Customs and Border Protection. He said that 18 town hall meetings that Customs and Border Protection claimed to have had with residents were nothing more than phone calls and meals in restaurants.
"We need your muscle to bring them to the table and work with us," Foster told members of the subcommittee.
Customs and Border Protection officials had been scheduled to testify but their appearance was postponed because of frequent interruptions by House votes. Outside the hearing room, the Border Patrol's Aguilar said the agency had conducted a "massive amount of outreach" to local officials and landowners, including hundreds of meetings on the Secure Border Initiative.
Aguilar took issue with Foster's assertion that Eagle Pass wasn't notified of the condemnation suit before it was filed. He said that Customs and Border Protection had told Eagle Pass of the suit in early December, and proceeded "when we got no response."