Border fence project facing delays
- GAO: Border fence schedule snagged
Feds report '08 construction plans proving 'difficult'
By Kevin Sieff
The Brownsville Herald
February 29, 2008
For the first time since the Secure Fence Act was passed in October 2006,
the federal government has acknowledged that it might not meet its objective
of building 370 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border before
On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office released a statement
outlining the challenges the fence's planners now face. "Customs and Border
Patrol officials reported that meeting deadlines has been difficult because
of various factors including difficulties in acquiring rights to border
lands." Although the report asserts that construction is currently
proceeding as planned, it acknowledges that "keeping on schedule will be
The GAO also announced that the construction of a virtual fence in Arizona
will be delayed until 2011, three years after its initial deadline.
In its reference to the status of the physical barrier, the report alludes
to the nearly 25 lawsuits that the federal government has filed against
Cameron County and Hidalgo County landowners in the last two months.
Cameron County resident and UTB-TSC professor Eloisa Tamez was sued on Feb.
8, but District Judge Andrew Hanen has yet to issue a decision on the case.
Tamez's lawyer, Peter Schey, argued that in suing his client under the
Declaration of Taking Act, the United States ignored a congressional statute
outlining steps that must be followed in the land condemnation process.
Lawsuits against additional landowners and institutions - including the
Texas Southmost College District - were filed several weeks ago, but no
hearing has been set. According to lawyers at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid,
which represents defendants in two of the pending cases, the federal
judiciary is likely waiting for Hanen to issue his ruling on Tamez's case
before subsequent suits are heard.
"To me, it's a triumph," Tamez said. "We're finally gaining ground here. The
awareness that we wanted to create is having an impact in the right places."
But despite the admission of legal obstacles facing the construction of a
physical fence, the GAO report cites the inevitability of a delay only in
the case of the virtual fence.
"This shows that there is flexibility - they're just not implementing it
with the construction of a physical barrier," said Tino Gallegos, a staff
attorney at TRLA. "But the admission of possible delays does point to
recognition that they don't have to adhere to strict deadlines or the
original proposal in the case of the fence."
When it was first announced, the Department of Homeland Security's deadline
created a sense of urgency for local officials. According to DHS' initial
plans, 17 miles of fencing would be built along the border in Brownsville by
the end of this year.
As of Feb. 21, 168 miles of pedestrian fence had been built along the
U.S.-Mexico border, but no construction has been completed in Cameron
The possible delay comes less than a week before Texas' presidential
primary, in which the border fence has become a central issue. Both
Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have spoken openly
of the need to revise DHS' current plans and work in closer cooperation with
landowners. Representatives from both camps released statements about the
GAO report Thursday.
"While the Department of Homeland Security's track record of failure is
hardly a surprise, it doesn't mean we should give up on knowing and
controlling who crosses our borders," said Josh Earnest, Texas
communications director for Obama.
In a prepared statement, Clinton said, "The Bush Administration's delay in
constructing a 'virtual fence' along the border underscores the poor
planning behind this government's immigration reform efforts."
Even a short delay would give the next president, along with Congress,
significant oversight on the fence's implementation.
"This is good news," said Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos. "It gives
everyone time to re-evaluate the need for a physical barrier."
On Tuesday, Cascos and other county officials met with DHS officials to
discuss the possibility of a levee-fence hybrid. After federal officials
made it clear that the county would not be reimbursed for the $50 million
project, Cascos called the proposal "just too risky to risk taxpayer
Sen. John Cornyn, who recently traveled with Cascos along the border, has
been a vocal advocate of alternatives to the border fence-including the
levee-fence hybrid. Cornyn voiced his disappointment over the virtual
fence's current stalemate, which, for the senator, means one less
alternative to a physical barrier.
"In the end," Cornyn told The Herald on Thursday, "physical barriers are not
the end-all be-all of border security."
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