October 21, 2008
DALLAS — A fence along the U.S.-Mexico border would trample on human rights and its construction should be halted, a group from the University of Texas will contend during the first international hearing on the issue Wednesday.
Several students and faculty will present their concerns during the hearing in Washington before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States.
The university group wants the commission to recommend stopping the construction of 670 miles of barriers that were approved by Congress in an effort to stem illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
"I think this hearing is the moment when the border wall issue becomes an international human rights issue," said Denise Gilman, a professor who oversees the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. The group contends the U.S is violating an OAS human rights agreement by building the fence.
A representative from the U.S. can respond to the group's contentions during the hearing, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling said the agency will not.
"Because of pending litigation on several issues ... it really would be inappropriate," he said.
A fence would infringe on traditional ceremonies conducted along the Rio Grande River by the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. The fence also would impede the Kickapoo from crossing freely between Texas and Mexico, a right secured through an agreement with the federal government, the group said.
CBP wouldn't address specific allegations from the group, Easterling said.
Members of the UT group point to an analysis that found small landowners will lose property to the fence while more lucrative and developed parcels are not in the fence's path. Those whose land will be most affected tend to be poor, less educated Latino families, the analysis by an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville found.
"There's a connection between income and education levels related to gaps in the fence," said Karla Vargas, a law school and public affairs student who is part of the university group. "It's definitely an argument for bias and discrimination toward the lower income community."
Easterling said CBP, which is in charge of the border fence, has held many discussions with local governments and landowners since the start of the project.
The UT group plans to urge the commission to request more detailed information about the project from the U.S. government. Requests by the university group to the federal government for details on the plan have yet to be answered even though they were made in April under the Freedom of Information Act, Gilman said.
"So the government really has not been transparent on information on this," she said.
Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights do not give opinions immediately after the hearing or at the end of a session. If the commission chooses decides to take any action, it would not be judicially binding, said spokeswoman Maria Isabel Rivero.
UT faculty and students began studying plans to build a fence along the border after being approached by the Tamez family, Lipan Apache property owners who oppose the wall because it would cut through land that's been in the family for centuries, back to Spanish land grants.