Expansive Border Fence Stirs Fights Over Land

The U.S. government is constructing a 700-mile fence along its border with Mexico, leaving many inhabitants within the construction area fighting to keep their land. Eloisa Tamez talks about being sued by the federal government to gain access to her land near Brownsville, Texas. Tamez is joined by Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

But first, last week Bush administration officials confirmed that their plans to build a so-called virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border will be delayed because of technical problems. The virtual fence is intended to complement nearly 700 miles of physical fence meant to keep out people and vehicles. But now the physical fence is also under fire, and not just from immigration advocates and others who call it racist and an affront to U.S.-Mexico relations. A new source of opposition has opened up among U.S. landowners of property along the border who would have to surrender some of it to allow the fence to be built.

Some of them are refusing to grant the federal government access to their land. So the government is filing suit in response. Eloisa Tamez is one of those residents. She owns three acres in El Calaboz just outside Brownsville, Texas, right in the path of the 700-mile fence under construction. She joins us by phone from her office at the University of Texas Brownsville, where she is a nursing professor. Also on the phone with us is the mayor of Brownsville, Pat Ahumada. He's opposed to the fence also and has worked to organize a community response. Thank you both for joining us.

Professor ELOISA TAMEZ (University of Texas): Thank you for having us.

Mayor PAT AHUMADA (Brownsville, Texas): My pleasure to be here with you.

MARTIN: Professor, how long has this land been in your family?

Prof. TAMEZ: The original land grant was awarded in 1767 by the king of Spain.

MARTIN: Really. I'm just kind of taken aback by that.

Prof. TAMEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you know anything about the circumstances? Or do you have documents or something that says why?

Prof. TAMEZ: Well at that time, in order to inhabit from the capital in Mexico City, these land grants were awarded to settlers from Spain on both side, actually, of the Rio Grande or these land grants.

MARTIN: What is on that land now?

Prof. TAMEZ: I have three acres to my name. I have two homes, and I have two storage units, some that have been there for years and years and years.

MARTIN: Under the proposal, how much of your land would you have to surrender, all of it?

Prof. TAMEZ: We do not get a very clear answer and understanding of how much of the land the government wants. All we know is that they want access to all of the land, and once in there and once they do all the testing of the soils et cetera, then they will decide where would be the best place for this wall to be constructed.

MARTIN: So potentially, though, you could lose all the land that has been in your family for these hundreds of years.

Prof. TAMEZ: Right.

MARTIN: Mayor, I'm going to bring you in in just a moment. But Professor Tamez, I wanted to ask you, there are those who would say that national security is at stake. And as a consequence of that, however painful it is, to lose something with which you have such a deep connection, but national interests have to override personal concerns. What would you say to that?

Prof. TAMEZ: I totally believe that we should have safety in our country. However, the original reason that was given by Secretary Chertoff, the reason that the act was enacted in 2006, the security fence, that was because we were told that terrorists were coming through the southern border. And to my knowledge, the terrorists are coming here legally and some other organization in the United States is not accountable for the whereabouts of those people who receive visas. This action is having been a hasty decision without giving much thought to whom, who would be harmed by such an action. They had no idea about our population here and who we are.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, you've been an outspoken critic of the fence. Why in your case?

Mayor AHUMADA: Because I saw it as a threat on our existence as to how we live here in the Southwest region along the border with Mexico. I believe our way of life is going to be interrupted. It's going to be adversely affected. We have a nature corridor that brings in about approximately 125 million annually to this region. We have a historical corridor where things, tourism is very valuable to our economy here.

MARTIN: I understand, Mr. Mayor, but the same question to you that I asked Professor Tamez is that the secretary has said - and we're talking about Michael Chertoff, who is the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security - that all of those things are important but that national security is the primary function of government and that all else pales in comparison to that. What would you say to that?

Mayor AHUMADA: Well, I agree with him 100 percent but not doing it without being responsible. You just don't - this is not a totalitarian form of government. In Washington, what may sound good or looks good doesn't necessarily make sense or is going to accomplish the mission...

MARTIN: Is it your basic objection that you think this fence is stupid and won't work or is it that you just think the impact on the local community is just too great?

Mayor AHUMADA: Well, it's stupid. First of all, there's other ways of doing it, using smart technology and using the geography we have here. We have a river that could serve as a virtual fence. We also have funding for a Weir project that will raise the water level from 12 feet to 26 feet along the Rio Grande and widen the river, which will make it harder to cross illegally and deter all kinds of activity, along with sophisticated equipment and boots on the ground. I think that would be more effective than building a fence. That would be the way to go and less costly. We have the money to build it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and I'm joined by two opponents of the fence, Mayor Pat Ahumada and landowner Eloisa Tamez from El Calaboz, Texas. I wanted to ask both of you - Secretary Chertoff has repeatedly rejected these arguments and he says that there are - but nevertheless he says that the department is very willing to consult, that they are very open to discussion. They are willing to have a fair discussion, but they are not going to be deterred by lawsuits and opposition and so forth. So I'd like to ask each of you - Professor Tamez, have you been able to express your concerns to anybody at the department, and what do they say? And I'd like the ask the mayor the same question.

Prof. TAMEZ: I have had no consultation from the department, only a lawsuit. In that respect, Secretary Chertoff is not following the amended law which was signed into law December 26, 2007, by the president.

MARTIN: And is that the basis of your lawsuit, that you don't feel that the government adequately consulted with you as a homeowner?

Prof. TAMEZ: Yes, that is. And you know, I want to add one thing and that is that it is not just about the personal impact that we're experiencing here in the Southwest and also in Arizona and California, all along the Texas-Mexico border. But it is about what the wall represents to the rest of the world. It says something about our democracy being in jeopardy, and also the lack of observance of human rights.

MARTIN: What do you mean, in the government's treatment of you, you think?

Prof. TAMEZ: Of all of us...

MARTIN: But there is the right of eminent domain. I mean all - I think the right of eminent domain has been recognized for quite some time in this country, that sometimes states do feel that they can abrogate individual property rights for larger national interests. I think that's the basis of their argument here...

Prof. TAMEZ: I know that. But if eminent domain is right to be enforced on me and my neighbors, then eminent domain should also be enforced on those resorts that are being skipped. There's two resorts that we know of that have been skipped right here in Southwest Texas. So if the eminent domain is good for me, then it's good for that corporation that owns those resorts.

MARTIN: I see. Mr. Mayor, what about you? You said that you feel that there are better alternatives. Have you raised those alternatives with Homeland Security officials, and what do they say?

Mayor AHUMADA: We most certainly have, and they have turned their deaf ears towards us. Now, the danger that we have fallen into is that we created a czar. We gave him absolute authority. And he is using that authority in a totalitarian manner to dictate what's good for everybody without taking us into account. We're all against terrorism. We're all against drug trafficking, and we're all against illegal immigration. Those are issues that could be dealt with in a very constructive and methodical way that can accomplish the mission.

But what they're trying to do here is put a blanket over all the issues and say, this is what you've got to live with and we don't care how you affect them, just to appease mid-America, who has no clue how we live. This is not the way to do it.

MARTIN: In last week's Democratic presidential debate in Austin, Texas, Senator Hillary Clinton criticized the fence, and she mentioned that it would cut through the University of Texas at Brownsville. But we have to mention: Both Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, voted on the bill that authorized the fence. Republican contender John McCain also voted to support the bill to build the fence. Now they are all campaigning aggressively in Texas. Is anybody saying anything that makes sense to you about this?

Prof. TAMEZ: Well, I believe all three of them are - pretty much say what they think we want to hear. But I recall that not only did they vote for the Secure Fence Act, but they also voted for the amendment to the Secure Fence Act. And that is not being followed by Secretary Chertoff. So for me, I'm still looking for the right answer from all three of them.

MARTIN: And Mr. Mayor, what do you think? I mean, whatever happens, there will be a change in administration soon in some months. Do you see that as an opportunity for you to press your case again, or do you believe that essentially the train has left the station at this point?

Mayor AHUMADA: The train has left the station because the mandate by the Fence Act is to build a fence by December 2008. That means that they have to start pretty soon. I feel they will come in, in the middle of the night, with a prefabricated fence and start building it. That's what I feel. What's unfortunate is that Mr. Chertoff was here, the secretary of Homeland Security, two weeks ago, and he would not even speak to the mayors of this community. That's unfortunate because that shows that he has complete disregard for the leaders who have to answer to the people as to how this is happening to them. But he won't even give us the courtesy of having a discussion...

MARTIN: So you think it's over? Do you feel - do you think it's over at this point?

Mayor AHUMADA: Oh no. It's not over till it's done, you know, But we're going to fight every step of the way. We have contracted attorneys to file lawsuits should the fence construction start. That's when we would file an injunction and take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: Professor Tamez, final word to you. How far are you prepared to fight this?

Dr. TAMEZ: All the way. I believe in the Constitution, and if the Constitution is followed by the government, we will succeed.

MARTIN: Pat Ahumada is the mayor of Brownsville, Texas, and Eloisa Tamez is a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, and she is a landowner whose land would be affected by proposed U.S.-Mexico border fence. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. TAMEZ: Thank you for having us.

Mayor AHUMADA: Thank you.

MARTIN: I should mention that we approached officials at the Department of Homeland Security, specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection, last week for their comments about the specific complaints raised by our guests. They were not able to offer a response by our air time today.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.