Thursday, April 03, 2008

Congress' Deadline for Fence Falls Short of Border Reality

Legal Hurdle Side-stepped For Now

by Daniela Martinez Moreno
AFSC Special Projects Policy Fellow

Developments in lawsuits between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Texas landowners indicate that the Congressional timeline for border fence construction fails to account for residents' rights. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found "difficulties in acquiring rights to border lands" as a factor in problems meeting deadlines for the border fence.

DHS Announces Waiver of Environmental Laws to Build Fence

Furthermore, DHS has announced that it will waive federal environmental laws to move forward in the building of the 670 miles of border fence. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said the waiver "represents an extreme abuse of authority" (Washington Post). During yesterday's DHS oversight hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said the fence "seemed to be a mean-spirited and costly effort" especially to landowners.

DHS sued 50 Texas landowners who oppose government requests to grant survey access to their private property. Over 25 landowners testified at a federal hearing that the government made no attempt to negotiate a price for accessing their land before the lawsuit began (Houston Chronicle).

University Reaches Agreement with DHS for Access to Campus

In a landmark move, DHS dismissed its lawsuit against the University of Texas-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (UTB-TSC) last month after the parties reached an agreement hours before a scheduled court appearance. Judge Hanen hopes that the agreement will serve as a model for similar cases. However, the DHS lawsuits with other landowners remain unresolved.

Enforcement-Only Bills Fail to Heed Lessons from Texas

Despite opposition to the border fence from South Texas residents, members of Congress continue to push for an enforcement-only approach that fails to offer constructive solutions for immigration reform. This month, ten Senators introduced a package of enforcement-only bills.

The package includes the Complete the Fence Act (S. 2712) introduced by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC). The bill would require DHS to complete at least 700 miles of reinforced fencing along the southwest border by December 31, 2010.

Senators Disagree: Call Enforcement-Only Bills "Unworkable" and "Unbalanced"

The enforcement-only bill package received criticism from Senators who played critical roles in previous immigration debates. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), said his colleagues are offering "unworkable solutions to complex immigration issues that only make the problem worse." Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said while "mainstream America knows full well that the immigration system is broken, they also recognize that "an unbalanced, narrow approach won't fix it."

AFSC Calls for Upholding the Rights and Dignity of Border Residents

The American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) decades of work with allies and communities along the southern border include programs in California, Texas and Arizona. AFSC's on-the-ground-work with communities most directly impacted by DHS physical changes to the terrain and to the community ignores the voices and quality of life of border residents, many who have lived in the area for decades.

AFSC reiterates its call for constructive and humane solutions to immigration issues including policies that are rooted in support the human rights of, the environment including the natural habitat of local wildlife endangered animals, and the quality of life of communities and families that have lived along the U.S. border for decades.