November 10, 2008
A government-sponsored program that once promised to answer lingering questions about the border fence will now exclude individual property owners.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and community leaders from the Texas border, began planning the series of on-the-ground consultations - dubbed Walk the Line - in April.
"We expect to get input from the people who live in these areas," Angela de Rocha, a DHS spokeswoman, told The Brownsville Herald in early October. "We're still planning community outreach even though we've begun awarding contracts."
But in a Nov. 4 letter to TBC, David Pagan, an advisor to the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, wrote that, "CBP cannot support including parties beyond immediate TBC members in the fence tours, with the possible exception of interested state and federal elected officials."
If the meeting was open to the public, Pagan wrote, consultations could devolve into a forum for local opposition to the fence. And pending land condemnation lawsuits would likely color the interactions between government officials and local landowners, restricting the breadth of consultations.
Many Valley landowners - who saw Walk the Line as their last chance to clarify key concerns about the project - are embittered by the government's change of heart.
Landowner Pamela Taylor is still unsure how she'll access her property once the 18-foot steel barrier is erected north of her home. It's a question she planned to ask the fence's planners during Walk the Line.
"It's a simple courtesy," Taylor said. "All we wanted was some honesty."
TBC officials are also disappointed by what they see as a betrayal of the program's original intentions.
"TBC is dumbfounded by CBP's continued resistance to consultation with local landowners and the community, and by CBP's unjustifiable demands for secrecy," Eagle Pass Mayor and TBC Chairman Chad Foster said.
In September, Congress approved DHS' $400 million appropriations request, allowing the government to continue work on the border fence after the project had exhausted its initial budget.
In his letter approving the request, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the homeland security subcommittee, asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to improve consultation and assessment in disputed border areas.
Initially, landowners like Taylor saw Walk the Line as a response to Price's suggestion - a chance to ask questions before the fence alters lives along the Rio Grande. Now, they're unsure where the answers will come from.
"We're so afraid we're going to be left vulnerable," Taylor said.