Feds Prepare Legal Battle Against Landowners Blocking Border Fence Project

The government is readying 102 court cases against landowners in Arizona, California and Texas for blocking efforts to select sites for a fence along the Mexican border, a Homeland Security Department official said Wednesday.

With the lawsuits expected soon, the legal action would mark an escalation in the clash between the government and the property owners. The Bush administration wants to build 370 miles of fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of the year.

A number of property owners have granted the government access to their land. But others have refused. The agency sent letters to 135 of them last month, warning they had 30 days to comply or face court action.

Thirty-three complied. The deadline for many of the owners passed on Monday or should expire this week for others.

Resistance is most intense in Texas, which accounts for 71 cases, while there are 20 against California landowners and 11 in Arizona, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said.

The government may not need all the properties for the project. Officials need to determine which to buy or seize through eminent domain, or whether alternatives such as lighting, more Border Patrol agents or technology would work better in those areas.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has made clear there is a limit to how long federal officials will wait for access to the land. He told reporters last month that this process is "not open for endless talk."

"The door is still open to talk if people want to engage with us, if they have some alternative ideas. But it's not open for endless talk. We do need to get moving on this proposition," he said at a news conference Dec. 7.

Some opponents of the fence say the government is violating the rights of indigenous landowners, descendants of American Indians and others who claim ancestral rights to the land or whose families were awarded property through Spanish land grants.

One holdout, Eloisa Garcia Tamez, 72, owns three acres in El Calaboz, Texas, about 12 miles west of Brownsville, a city at the state's southernmost tip. Tamez said her property was part of a Spanish land grant and her grandfather was Lipan Apache, a tribe not officially recognized by Washington but known to have existed in Texas and Mexico.

"I'm waiting for whatever they've got coming and I'm not going to sign. I'm not," said Tamez, director of the master of science and nursing program at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.

Peter Schey, executive director of The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, told Chertoff in a letter Monday that Tamez will take court action to protect her rights.

More than 250 border landowners in Texas have given the government access to property for the fence over the past year. Their willingness reflects "they recognize the importance of border security, not only for their community but for the entirety of the country," Knocke said.

A 2006 law signed by President Bush mandates a 700-mile fence along the border. A government spending bill that Bush signed last month gave Chertoff leeway in deciding whether the 700 miles of fencing is needed and required he consult with local, state and federal officials before construction.