WASHINGTON – Texas mayors and business leaders filed a class-action lawsuit Friday alleging Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hoodwinked landowners into waiving their property rights for construction of a fence along the Mexican border.
Members of the Texas Border Coalition said Chertoff did not fairly negotiate compensation with landowners for access to their land for six-month surveys to choose fence sites. The coalition of mayors and business and community leaders is seeking an injunction to block work on the fence.
They also want a federal judge to rescind all the agreements with landowners and to order Chertoff to start again. The department has sought and won access from hundreds of landowners to determine where to build the fence and other barriers to illegal border crossings.
The coalition's attorney, Peter Schey, said Chertoff violated a 1996 immigration law that requires fair negotiation with landowners.
The lawsuit also names Robert Janson, director of Asset Management at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as a defendant.
It was filed with U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush nominee who presided in the criminal case of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.
"They hoodwinked property owners" into waiving their property rights, Schey said.
"This whole thing has been built on a foundation of lawlessness," he said.
Landowners were visited by officials from Homeland Security, Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Patrol. But the government didn't send anyone to advise the owners' of their property rights, Schey said. Some landowners accepted offers of $100 for access to their land.
The Homeland Security Department has repeatedly denied allegations of unfair negotiations, saying it has bent over backward to work with landowners.
The agency wants to build about 353 miles of fence by year's end to bring total fencing, walls and barriers to about 670 miles.
Chertoff said the Border Patrol has convinced him that the fence and where it is being built will be key to controlling the border. He said Congress has overwhelmingly mandated building the fence.
"We've had a whole number of lawsuits filed up to now with people claiming there hasn't been adequate consultation, and the courts have rejected those, because we have had dozens of town hall meetings," Chertoff said in a news conference. "We've had constant and consistent efforts at engaging with the public."
The lawsuit also alleges:
— Chertoff failed to write and make public any regulations or guidelines on negotiation procedure and determining a "reasonable" price for access to property.
— Chertoff has not written policies on how to consult with landowners about their concerns as required by a 2007 law.
— Landowners' rights to equal protection under the law were violated because the fence bypasses the property of some well-connected landowners, including Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt and his relatives.
— The newer law requires Chertoff to build the fence where it is most practical and effective but he continues to build where a 2006 law specified.
Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada said the mayors are willing to work with Homeland Security to devise alternatives to the border fence.
"They are determined to build a wall to appease mid-America," Ahumada said. "This is a political problem that's being addressed at the expense of all the border communities."