BROWNSVILLE - A federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a joint assessment of alternatives for a portion of border fence that would, under original plans, cut across two acres of the UT-Brownsville campus.
UT-Brownsville and the UT System scored a victory in federal court Monday when District Judge Andrew Hanen said Homeland Security must work with the Brownsville university officials, as he had ordered in March.
UT-Brownsville attorneys filed a motion June 19 in conjunction with UT System attorneys alleging that the federal government had violated the terms of the March 19 settlement. The motion said Homeland Security attorneys informed UT administrators on June 6 that the department would proceed with the construction of the fence as planned without joint assessment of alternatives.
Hanen said a joint assessment should include persons of authority and expertise from both sides gathering to exchange information, and that those conditions had not been met.
Hanen set a July 31 deadline for the first joint meeting to occur.
Homeland Security has a congressional mandate under the 2006 Secure Fence Act that calls for 700 miles of fence to be constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2008. Hanen urged UT to consider this deadline in its discussions with the government.
UT-Brownsville attorney Dan Renfro said during the Monday hearing that he saw nothing in the law requiring the fence to run through the Brownsville campus.
"Their idea of joint assessment is we name something and they say yes or no," Renfro said, "I don't know how we do a joint assessment without knowing their operational requirements."
Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitiello said in his testimony that the area was designated as a high priority for fence construction because of the high number of apprehensions his department makes in the location.
Federal attorney Daniel Hu said during the hearing that Homeland Security believed an ongoing dialogue with the Brownsville university had been taking place. Hu said the department had relocated a staging area for proposed construction since the motion was filed.
Prior to the hearing, Homeland Security agreed that any fence constructed on the campus would be a movable barrier.
Hu said a fence would be more cost-effective and that alternatives UT-Brownsville has proposed, such as advanced technology, motion detection systems and increased border patrol, would be more expensive and wouldn't completely address border security issues.
Renfro said the proposed fence would resemble a concrete barrier that separates highway lanes from construction but would stand an additional 13 or 14 feet tall.
Hanen said both parties want a fence as close to the actual border as possible.
Hanen suggested that one resolution might construct a fence on top of an already existing set of levees closer to the Rio Grande River - a move that would require the approval of the International Border Commission and the Mexican government.
Homeland Security proposed placing the fence to the north of the current levees so that approval from the Mexican government wouldn't be required.
Under current plans, the border fence would cut off the university's golf course from the rest of campus.
UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia, who has said that the border fence would hinder the university's cross-cultural relations with Mexico, said after the hearing that she still considers her university's educational mission a priority over the congressional mandate.
A small crowd of protesters opposing the construction of the border all met Garcia outside the federal courthouse after the hearing to voice their support. Garcia said she was pleased with the decision but did not offer comments on the possibility of pushing the fence back to the older levee closer to the Rio Grande.
"If we were under siege, I would be in Washington demanding better security," she said. "We are not under siege."
Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said Hanens' order "recognizes the paramount importance of securing the nation's border and following the laws that Congress passed, while also acknowledging the benefits of consultation with state and local stakeholders."
"We've gone to great lengths to work with the local community, including UTB leadership, to get their input on building border infrastructure," Keehner said in a statement released by the department Monday. "While our state and local partners cannot have a veto on the nation's efforts to secure the border, our discussions assist us in building border infrastructure while taking into account local interests when possible."