Chertoff to deliver Texans ultimatum

Washington_Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is giving Texas landowners opposed to a border fence one last chance to allow access to their land before he takes court action against them, a Texas senator said Thursday.

Sen. John Cornyn said letters from the Department of Homeland Security are expected to go out Friday. But for those who refuse to provide the temporary access, the department would likely seek a court order to enter the property, he said.

"He assured me that negotiations would continue and his hope is the vast majority of these cases could be resolved without litigation, maybe in handful of cases litigation would be required," he said.

Some residents in the Rio Grande Valley, where opposition to the fence is most fervent, have refused to let federal officials on their land. Earlier this year, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada refused to sign documents allowing workers access to city property.

A Homeland Security Department spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

President Bush last year approved 700 miles of fencing and barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration and smuggling. Unlike other states, most land in Texas is in private hands.

"All that will do is fire people up more down here," John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, said of the impending letters.

"Nothing makes a landowner more unhappy than the idea of condemnation of land, the idea of being forced to turn land over to government," McClung said.

Some landowners have complained that they could lose access to the Rio Grande, the only freshwater source in the region, which they rely on for irrigating crops and livestock. Others would have their land behind the fence, cut off from the rest of the United States in a border no-man's land.

Opponents have said federal officials have failed to keep them fully informed on fence plans and refused to listen to residents' proposals for alternatives. Others say the fence is a waste of taxpayers' money and will hurt border economies.

"It's just a continuation of a battle with our government. We are for security. However the way they are approaching solving security problems, we just disagree with," said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez. "We just don't see how a non-continuous fence, when you have 6,000 miles of land borders, is going to stop terrorism and illegal immigration. We continue to believe it is a waste of taxpayers' money."

Federal officials say the fence is necessary to secure the border, especially in light of a failure to pass an immigration reform bill earlier this year. They say they need access to the land to assess possible sites for the fence, which will be built along with "virtual fence" and more patrols.

Cornyn, who voted for the fence, said Chertoff told him about 40 landowners have refused to provide access to their land. Of the total, 110 have not responded or can't be located and 258 have given the government the access, a congressional official familiar with the statistics said on condition of anonymity because the Homeland Security Department had not released them.

About 127 miles of land are being considered for the fencing and about 15 miles of that is on property where the government cannot get access, the aide said.


SUZANNE GAMBOA Associated Press Writer © 2007 The Associated Press

On the Net: Homeland Security Department:

Sen. John Cornyn: