EL CALABOZ, Texas/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Standing on a grassy levee, Eloisa Tamez stares at the modest dwellings on her property near the U.S. border with Mexico and cannot imagine a wall running through it.
Tamez filed a class-action suit in February to keep the U.S. government from surveying her land for a border-security barrier. That puts her on the front-lines of a presidential election-year battle over an impatient Bush administration’s efforts to get tough on illegal immigration.
“They are using very, very strong-arm tactics. They just want me to roll over and say yes,” Tamez said as she looked over her 3-acre plot with two small houses, the remnants of a ranch that has been in her family since the 1700s.
Washington plans to build 670 miles of fencing along stretches of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border from California to Texas to help stem the tide of illegal immigration. More than 300 miles are already built, and the U.S. government is pushing hard to finish this year as mandated by Congress.
But opposition by landowners could slow the project, about 54 percent of which is to be built on private property, a government watchdog agency said in a report in February.
“Until the land issues are resolved, this factor will continue to pose a risk to meeting the deployments,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.
Tamez is one of many opponents along the border who are fighting the fence. Ranchers fear they will lose access to irrigation pumps; ecologists worry it will block the migration of endangered species such as the jaguar and ocelot; anglers and boaters do not want to be cut off from the river.
And in western states like Texas and Arizona, the government’s concerns over illegal immigration clash with cherished values of landowner rights, which have helped sustain U.S. President George W. Bush’s Republican Party in the region.
“That was everybody’s dream, we’ll come out here ... develop the West and civilize it. Now the government is coming and saying ‘Oh, we’ll take that back, because we’re going to build a wall. It’s unAmerican,”’ said rancher John Ladd of Naco, Arizona, whose land runs for 10 miles along the border with Mexico.
The U.S. Justice Department has filed dozens of lawsuits seeking court orders against reluctant landowners and the city of Eagle Pass, Texas, to gain access to property for surveying.
In addition, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, citing “unacceptable risks” to national security, has three times waived environmental regulations viewed as time-consuming roadblocks to sections of the fence.
“We get court objections, we get political objections, we get press objections, we get local objections,” Chertoff told reporters in January.
“But in the end, we have to achieve what the American public has I think unmistakably demanded, which is security for the border. And while I want to do it as cooperatively and as smoothly as possible, we cannot allow endless postponement of the inevitable.”
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted for the fence as senators, but in February they called for an overhaul of the plan. They said Bush had failed to listen to local residents and there were less disruptive border-security options, such as a high-tech system being tried on one 28-mile border section in Arizona. But that system turned out to be less effective than hoped.
Tamez’s land, about a mile from the Rio Grande river which forms the international boundary in the steamy southern corner of Texas, falls just beyond a 72-year old flood-control levee along the river.
The government built the levee on her family’s land with similar strong-arm tactics, said Tamez, an energetic professor of nursing at a local university.
This time the government wanted her to sign a waiver to remove anything in the way of the wall including houses and trees, she said, and she accused Chertoff of failing to consult on the fence route as specified in legislation.
“The plan was just to come in here and push their way through and take the land just like they did in 1936,” she said. “But I will exercise my American right to defend my property.”
Tamez and another landowners are seeking class-action status on behalf of more than 100 border property owners in the Rio Grande Valley, with a goal of forcing the government to take additional steps before going ahead with fence planning.
The government says it consulted heavily with local residents, and tried repeatedly to negotiate surveying rights before it sought condemnation proceedings.
“In light of the pressing time constraints imposed by Congress for this project, the United States concluded that an agreement with the landowner was not possible and that therefore condemnation was necessary,” government lawyers said in their response to Tamez’s suit.
The GAO said 148 private-property owners out of 480 along planned sections of the fence had failed to grant survey access to their land as of last December. About half of those holdouts gave access as of mid-February, after being warned they could be taken to court.
The wall has little support near El Calaboz, a heavily Latino region of south Texas which has enjoyed an economic boom that many people attribute to free trade with Mexico. Customers from south of the border flock to stores, the farm industry is dependent on migrant Mexican labor, and many families have relatives on both sides of the border.
Local activists have coalesced around an organization called “No Border Wall.” Bumper stickers with the group’s logo beneath a coil of razor wire are a common sight in the region.
“When will people understand that walls do not work?” said Sister Maria Sanchez, a local nun.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard in Calaboz, Texas, and Randall Mikkelesen in Washington; Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Naco, Arizona