Monday, February 9, 2009

No Border Wall group asks Brownsville leaders to clarify land ownership

February 9, 2009
Rio Grande Guardian
Steve Taylor and Joey Gomez

AUSTIN, February 9 - The No Border Wall coalition is asking City of Brownsville officials to clarify who owns the land where the Department of Homeland Security wants to build a border wall.

City officials say their cards will be laid on the table at a public meeting at city hall on Thursday evening. The special meeting is designed to give city commissioners the option of accepting or rejecting a DHS proposal that would allow them to construct temporary fencing on the property.

“We were confused about the statements made by some Brownsville city officials regarding the ownership of the property where DHS wants to build the border wall,” No Border Wall spokeswoman Stefanie Herweck said, in an open letter to city commissioners.

“Commissioner Troiani was quoted in the Brownsville Herald as saying "the fact is they (the federal government) own the property." City Manager Charlie Cabler made a similar statement in the Rio Grande Guardian. We wondered how this supposed "ownership" had been affected when no court order had been announced.”

Herweck said she and the No Border Wall group have received an explanation from an attorney with experience on eminent domain.

“In a Declaration of Taking case, the U.S. Attorney's office prepares complaint and files the case. When it is filed, a deposit of estimated compensation is made with the clerk of the court, and title to the land passes to the United States upon the filing of the Declaration of Taking and deposit of funds. Taking the title is a procedure that occurs automatically, and does not depend on a judge taking any action. It is purely procedural,” Herweck said, citing the legal advice she obtained.

“For the government to take possession requires that a court fix the time, date and conditions that the owner will surrender possession. That is the nature of the trial in Judge Hanen's court. Title does not mean a thing in a Declaration of Taking case. The government wins title by simply filing suit. What matters is possession, and that will be determined by a judge,” Herweck said.

By confusing the commissioners about title and possession, the CBP is pulling the wool over their eyes, Herweck believes.

“If you were not aware of this, you have a duty to consult with an attorney who has expertise on these cases, so that you don't spread disinformation to the public,” Herweck said.

“If you were aware of this, you owe it to the citizens of Brownsville to clarify this with them. It is misleading to use the granting of the title as a pretense for not meeting DHS in the courtroom, when in fact the title transfer is an automatic procedure that occurs in all such cases.”

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada told the Guardian over the weekend that he continues to oppose DHS’s attempts to build a border wall in his city. Some of his colleagues on the city commission believe they have no choice but to cooperate with DHS on a “temporary fence” that will come down when certain economic development projects are complete. If they do not cooperate, Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Atkinson told the Guardian, DHS will build a permanent fence.

Meanwhile, the Texas Border Coalition has announced its members will hold on-the-ground consultations with DHS over the planned border wall beginning Friday, Feb. 13, in Brownsville.

TBC Chair and Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said the process, called “Walk the Line,” is designed to give local officials an opportunity to examine the border wall’s proposed footprint. A tour of planned locations in Cameron County will be held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“As local officials, we’re happy that we will finally be able to examine where the wall is being built and gain the information we’ve been seeking for more than a year,” Foster said.

TBC, a coalition of border mayors, county judges and economic development associations, has complained about the federal government's lack of consultation with local representatives over the wall’s construction.

Foster pointed out that under the Consolidated Fiscal 2008 Appropriations Act, homeland security officials are obliged to consult with the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, states, local governments, Indian tribes, and property owners in communities where the wall is to be built. The point is to minimize the barrier’s impact on Rio Grande Valley communities and residents from an environmental, cultural and economic standpoint.

That lack of consultation has created a sense of mistrust among landowners in Brownsville. And, as first reported in the Guardian, Ahumada is still waiting to hear how the wall will affect city-owned property.

Although the TBC has asked that landowners in the impacted communities be included in walking the line, DHS officials have insisted that the presence of landowners would make effective consultation difficult.

DHS refused to walk the line if TBC invited property owners to attend. In order to gain an understanding of where the federal government intends to build the wall, TBC officials agreed not to issue such invitations.

Ahumada told the Guardian that he only recently learned that the federal government has engaged in secret negotiations with city management to build a temporary wall on city-owned land.

Ahumada hopes city commissioners will postpone any decision until TBC members have had an opportunity to complete their on-the-ground consultation with homeland security officials.

“We’ve waited over a year for answers,” Ahumada said. “What’s one more day going hurt?”

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