IMAGE: Pelicans flying.
Eric Gay  /  AP file
Pelicans pass over Boca Chica, Texas, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday, May 10. Wildlife enthusiasts fear the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge could be ruined by the fences and adjacent roads the U.S. government plans to erect along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers.
updated 10/3/2007 2:05:21 AM ET 2007-10-03T06:05:21

Mayors along the Texas-Mexico border have begun a quiet protest of the federal government’s plans to build a fence along the border: They are refusing to give access to their land.

Mayors in Brownsville, Del Rio and El Paso have denied access to some parts of their city property, turning away federal employees assigned to begin surveys or conduct other preliminary work on the fence meant to keep out illegal immigrants.

“This is exercising our rights. This is our property. We are not going to make it easy for them,” said Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, who refused last month to sign documents granting government workers permission to enter city property.

In Eagle Pass, Mayor Chad Foster initially refused the Border Patrol’s request to build 1½ miles of fencing as part of a project that includes light towers and a new road for patrols. Now he is negotiating with the Department of Homeland Security.

“All of us are in opposition to physical barriers, but we want to work with DHS so everybody walks away happy,” Foster said.

Del Rio and El Paso granted workers limited access, said Monica Weisberg Stewart of the Texas Border Coalition, a group that represents local officials.

Congress has authorized $1.2 billion to put up 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The project would include about 330 miles of so-called virtual fence — a network of cameras, high-tech sensors, radar and other technology. The remaining 370 miles, primarily in more urban areas, are expected to have an actual fence.

Officials decry environmental impact
State and local officials have said the fence will destroy ecosystems by cutting off the Rio Grande, the only source of fresh water in the region. They also say it will hurt the cross-border economy and send the wrong message to neighbors in Mexico.

Brownsville, a city of 170,000 people across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico, is considering a lawsuit against the federal government to prevent the fence’s construction on city property. City leaders met with attorneys Tuesday night about that possibility but decided to wait two weeks before deciding.

“If we have to we’ll take it all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Ahumada said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Brad Benson said the federal government has not responded to the cities yet, but officials expected some land owners would refuse.

“We will work with everybody. We plan to accommodate any credible concerns with regard to the environment,” Benson said. “Our mission at the end of the day is to secure the border.”

David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said for now, land owners can keep anybody out of their property for any reason, but a legislative body could override that right.

“Either the Texas Legislature or Congress can give power to an agency to do it,” said Crump, who specializes in real property law.

Fence plans begin to solidify
Maps released last month by the federal government show the proposed location of about 70 miles of border fencing in south Texas, stretching from Rio Grande City southeast to Fort Brown, next to Brownsville. Maps of fencing being proposed for other parts of the state have not been released.

The maps show nearly 23 miles of fence would be built in and around Brownsville, including some city property. Ahumada pointed out of his office window to land only three blocks away as potential fenced-in areas.

Ahumada said a nearly $40 million dam-and-reservoir project proposed for Brownsville would provide a natural physical barrier and offer better border security than the fence.

The Department of Homeland Security has said it is committed to erecting 370 miles of fencing by the end of 2008.

If Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “is determined to build a wall. I wish Mr. Chertoff would build a wall around his house,” Ahumada said. “We don’t want this wall.”

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