Office of Homeland Security, Mexico, Texas The People vs. Michael Chertoff Brett Story To build a fence on the US border with Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security seized land without trials or negotiations.
The circumstances were different the last time the federal government visited Dr. Eloise Tamez’s family property in the Lower Rio Grande region of South Texas. It was 1936 and her grandparents, descendents of the Lipan Apache with ties to the land going back centuries, were poorly educated and spoke no English–little match for a state government on a mission to build flood levees. “The government took half our land and then left whole families on the south side,” says Tamez angrily.
The latest threat to Tamez’s land comes in the form of a proposed eighteen-foot steel and concrete wall, to be built through her property as part of the controversial US-Mexico border fence. Determined to fight the seizure, the 72-year-old Apache elder launched a class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Michael Chertoff. Last week, a federal judge ruled in favor of Tamez and her co-defendants, agreeing that Chertoff violated federal law in his rush to build several hundred miles of border wall along the Texas-Mexico border.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 charged DHS with building 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the US-Mexico border, with at least half to be completed by the end of the 2008. Secretary Chertoff invoked eminent domain powers to seize land along the wall’s path, and last August announced that property owners in southern Texas would be served waivers requesting unimpeded access to their land. Those refusing to sign, he declared, would be sued.
Over the past two months the Justice Department filed more than fifty condemnation lawsuits against resisting property owners, among them the city of Eagle Pass and the University of Texas at Brownsville campus. Most, however, were subsistence farmers and small landholders whose vulnerability and limited resources made them easy targets.
Just two miles down the road from Tamez’s property sits the River Bend Resort and golf course, a popular luxury retreat that, as The Texas Observer reported recently, has yet to be asked to “volunteer” any of its landholdings. River Bend is not the only place where the spotty route seems to accommodate wealthy landowners with political connections. In the small town of Granjeno, the wall’s proposed path stops abruptly at the property of billionaire oilman Ray L. Hunt, a friend of the President who recently donated $35 million to Bush’s presidential library. “How do you justify this to people as being about public safety when you leave these big gaps?” asks Tamez.