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Originally published January 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 17, 2008 at 1:04 AM

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Judge orders city to give up land for fence study

Some landowners and political leaders intensified their opposition to a border fence Wednesday after the Justice Department forced the border...

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Some landowners and political leaders intensified their opposition to a border fence Wednesday after the Justice Department forced the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, to temporarily relinquish 233 acres in a prelude to building the barrier.

U.S. District Judge Alia Moses Ludlum ordered Eagle Pass to "surrender" the 233 acres. The Justice Department sued for access to the land Monday.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster assailed the Bush administration's actions as "sneaky underhanded measures" as he responded to the District Court order forcing the city to turn over the land. The Justice Department sought the property to allow government surveyors to begin assessing sites for construction of the fence.

Ludlum ruled in favor of the Bush administration as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began pressing ahead with more than 100 lawsuits to begin seizing property from holdout landowners in Texas, Arizona and California in its efforts to build hundreds of miles of fencing by the end of the year.

The judge's order, issued in the Texas Western District Court, Del Rio division, said the United States, the plaintiff, is entitled to possession or control of the property for 180 days.

DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner stressed that the lawsuits are designed to give the government temporary access to the land for surveying and site assessment in preparation for construction. At least some of the property, she said, may not wind up as a site for the fence.

The DHS is under a congressional mandate to have 670 miles of fencing in place by the end of the year to toughen security on the porous southwestern border. The plan calls for roughly 400 miles of new fencing that will be added to existing barriers.

After months of discussions with municipal officials and protesting landowners, the DHS toughened its stance in December by saying it planned to move forward with condemnation proceedings to gain access to the property. The Justice Department suit handled by Ludlum marked the start of that process.

Foster said Eagle Pass officials were stunned and had no advance notice of the Justice Department intentions. City officials, he said, had been working amicably with the Border Patrol, a branch of the DHS, to help improve enforcement against illegal immigrants.

Foster said he and leaders from other Texas border cities hope to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this month.

The leader of CASA, a coalition of border-area residents and property owners, said the lawsuits likely would prompt the group to step up opposition to the fence.

"It's outrageous," said Elizabeth Garcia of Brownsville, Texas. "They're taking away from the people their basic rights."

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The umbrella group, which represents 12 organizations and includes at least three holdout landowners, will consult attorneys to map out possible recourse.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the border city of Laredo, Texas, said he understands the anger and frustration but the DHS is responding to legislation that Congress passed requiring fencing along the border. "I support the border communities," he said, "but the law's the law."

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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