U. Texas System Disputes Border Fence Plans

This story was written by Andrew Kreighbaum, Daily Texan
The UT System filed a motion in federal court Thursday renewing a legal battle over government plans for a border fence in Brownsville.

The motion, filed jointly with Texas Southmost College, asks the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to comply with the conditions of a March 19 settlement involving possible construction of a border fence on part of the UT-Brownsville campus. Texas Southmost College is a junior college that shares the campus with UT-Brownsville.

According to Thursday's motion, attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security informed UT administrators on June 6 that the department would proceed with the construction of the fence as planned without joint assessment of alternatives.

The Homeland Security Department, rather than working with UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, demanded that UT-Brownsville and the junior college present alternatives for the department's approval or disapproval, according to the motion.

The March settlement resolved a lawsuit filed by Homeland Security in January after UT-Brownsville administrators refused to allow university property to be surveyed for possible construction of the border fence. Under the terms of the settlement, the school was to allow surveyors on its campus, and Homeland Security was to cooperate with the school in assessing alternatives to a physical barrier.

When the universities named a working group for the joint assessment in April, Homeland Security refused to name its own participants, according to the motion.

The motion also questions the seriousness of the Homeland Security Department's commitment to the court order based on comments made by Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitiello. According to the motion, Vitiello began a June 2 meeting with university representatives by stating that assessment of alternatives to a fence would be a "waste of time."

UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia denied the government's October 2007 request for access to the campus because of security and environmental concerns. She said the fence would run counter to UT-Brownsville's mission of fostering relationships between communities on both sides of the border.

The fence as planned would encompass 2.1 acres and cut off the school's golf course and International Technology Center from the rest of the campus, which sits on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Barry Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel for the UT System, told The Daily Texan in March that there were four alternatives to the proposed fence construction: looping the fence around campus to the south of the golf course, building existing levees up to 15 feet to act as a fence, using technology such as cameras and lights as a "virtual fence," or increasing the number of border patrol agents in the area.

Department of Homeland Security Spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the department could not comment on the details of the litigation at this time but said the government could not "wait around forever" to construct the fence.

"The drug smugglers, the human smugglers, the criminals, will not wait for us to be tied up in litigation," Keehner said.

Keehner discounted claims by UT-Brownsville administrators and the UT System that the planning of the border fence has not been an open and cooperative process.

She said the Homeland Security Department has held hundreds of meetings and listening sessions with border residents and that, in some cases, their input has factored into the department's proposed placement of the fence - such as putting in place a different type of fence so that endangered lizards can cross the border.

Keehner said students would be able to cross to either sde of the fence on campus.

"We've been working with them to make sure that legitimate students can go through and not those that have been utilizing the area illegally," Keehner said.

Keehner told The Daily Texan in January that 101 similar lawsuits were planned by the department at that time.

The UT System declined to comment on the motion due to pending litigation.

A hearing on the motion has been scheduled for June 30.
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