Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pact lifts threat of border fence from UT-Brownsville

This is great news for the university and students. It's unfortunate though that a similar agreement couldn't have been reached for other residents; apparently due to the lack of "unique status".


By LYNN BREZOSKY | San Antonio Express-News
July 31, 2008

BROWNSVILLE — A federal court agreement reached Thursday with the Department of Homeland Security removes the threat of an 18-foot fence splitting the campus of the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College.

Instead, the federal agency agreed to accept the bolstering of an existing fence along the university perimeter and use the site to test and study technological alternatives to a physical barrier to curb illegal immigration.

"DHS will not build a fence on the university campus," UTB/TSC President Juliet Garcia said. "They will not condemn or seek to condemn the land."

Students and other protesters waiting outside the courthouse cheered the news on one of many battlefronts over the government's controversial effort to build border fencing.

The agreement comes weeks after U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sent DHS back to the table. Hanen told the agency that it had not complied with his March order to exchange ideas with the university on both security and campus life.

Attorneys described the compromise as an "agreement in principle" whose paperwork was interrupted by Hurricane Dolly but which should be final next week.

DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said details are still being worked out.

"The goal that was agreed upon Thursday was basically to develop a program to meet the Border Patrol's operational requirements by the Dec. 31 deadline, while at the same time recognizing the University of Texas-Brownsville's unique status as an institution of higher education," she said.

University officials had taken the latest round of negotiations straight to DHS officials in Washington.

The government's original plan would have lopped off about 180 acres of university land, putting remnants of a historic battlefield and the university golf course on the Mexican side of the fence.

Traveling across campus

Some critics asked if students or staff would have to show passports when they crossed the barrier to practice their golf game.

"There will be no impediment to the golf course," Garcia said.

"There will be no gate. There will no checkpoints. There will be none of that."

According to the proposed agreement, the university will be responsible for repairing the existing fence and raising it to 10 feet.

"It can be a very friendly fence," Garcia said. "I kind of see it with bougainvillea and vine climbing all over it."

It will be up to the Border Patrol to install surveillance technology along it and patrol it.

The agreement would also have DHS drop its eminent domain lawsuit against the school, as well as plans for a "floating" fence that could be moved should the university get approval to expand south toward the Rio Grande.

Also Thursday, about a dozen land owners who refused initial government compensation offers for their land got good news.

Sides ordered to meet

Judge Hanen denied a DHS request to seize the land to erect the fence while money issues get litigated in court.

Hanen ordered both sides to meet this month and told the government to supply landowners with information about the fence, including what's going up, where it's going up, how landowners will access their property behind the fence and what money is being offered.

He said he would not rule on the government's possession request before then.

Most of the 210 lawsuits filed by the government to take Texas land for fencing have ended in settlements, but lawyers for both sides said the remaining handful of cases could stretch on for months.

DHS is committed to having 370 miles of fence built by Dec. 31.

"All they seem to be interested in, in my view, is them getting possession so they can meet their timeline," said Norton Colvin, an attorney for various landowners.

Virginia Butler, land acquisition chief with the Department of Justice, said compensation offers would be based on the value of the land before the fence decreased its value.

Full compensation possible

She said in cases where the land was made worthless because of the barrier, a landowner could be compensated full land value even if the barrier only takes part of the land.

She said preliminary estimates were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that appraisals couldn't be shared with defendant landowners because "when the government has tried that it starts bidding against itself."

Lawyers for property owners said there were all sorts of issues to sort out, ranging from having to move water wells on the fence path to recouping lost revenue from white wing dove hunts.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Robert Doggett said there was still an issue of whether Congress called for a fence "along the border," meaning it couldn't go on places a quarter-mile inland. The actual U.S.-Mexico border is the middle of the Rio Grande.

Hanen told him to submit a brief outlining his argument.

UTB is not the first public entity to reach a compromise on the fence. Hidalgo County reached an agreement to shore up 22 miles of eroding levees with concrete to serve as a combination security barrier and flood structure.

Work on the fence-levee got under way this week.

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