March 18, 2008
McALLEN – More than 25 Hidalgo and Starr county landowners aren’t likely to find support from the courts to block border fence surveys on their properties.
During a court hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen indicated he would likely stand by a ruling he made in a similar case earlier this month when deciding whether to grant the government’s request to access their lands.
The judge previously determined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ultimately has the right to condemn the property under federal law, provided that negotiations on the terms of surveying access take place.
Making that precedent clear, Hanen started Monday’s hearing by urging the landowners and their lawyers to limit their arguments to pertinent issues only.
“The best way to describe why we’re here is to describe why we’re not here,” he said. “We’re not here to debate the merits of the fence.”
Still, several of the property owners the federal government sued told the court they feared the surveys could irreparably damage their property.
G. Allen Ramirez, an attorney representing the Rio Grande City school district over a 132-acre tract, said the process could disrupt class schedules, damage taxpayer property and endanger a wildlife refuge on the plot.
“There have been no discussions at all between the school district and the government on how to ensure minimal disruption,” he said.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Border Patrol began contacting landowners last spring seeking access to survey their land and test its suitability for fencing stretches.
Current plans call for 370 miles of border fence and 300 miles of vehicle barriers along the southern U.S. border by the end of this year.
But earlier this month, representatives from the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that “keeping on schedule will be challenging because of … difficulties in acquiring rights to border lands.”
“It is the commitment of the government to be minimally intrusive,” said Andy Goldfrank, who is with the U.S. Justice Department’s land acquisition division, on Monday.
Pamela Rivas, however, insisted the government had never tried to negotiate access with her.
She met with Border Patrol agents in December to discuss surveys on her property near the Los Ebanos ferry, but said she was only given a form that promised $100 for 12 months of access.
A month later, she was sued.
“They were very vague about what they would do,” she said. “They didn’t say a whole lot.”
Government attorneys said that representatives had previously discussed terms with Rivas’ father, who she described as a man in his 80s suffering from “early stages of dementia.”
Baldomero Muñiz, too, said he had minimal contact with government agents before his case ended up in court.
An elderly goat herder who also owns land near Los Ebanos, Muñiz said Border Patrol agents handed him a form to sign. But since he is unable to read in English or Spanish, he was not sure what it said.
“It was basically a form letter that said, ‘Sign this or get sued,'” said his attorney, Celestino Gallegos.
Muñiz didn’t sign it because he did not understand the content.
On March 7, Hanen ruled in a similar case that the government was entitled to access a Cameron County landowner’s property but ordered further negotiations between the parties.
“There is contradictory and insufficient evidence before this court as to whether there has been bona fide efforts to negotiate,” Hanen’s 32-page opinion states.
Since many of the legal issues involved in Monday’s cases are similar to that suit, the judge indicated he intended to rule quickly.
He is also expected to hear two more cases in Brownsville this week, including one the federal government filed against the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
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