August 19, 2008

DHS rejects Cameron County's border fence/levee project

August 19, 2008 - 9:47PM
By LAURA B. MARTINEZ/The Brownsville Herald

Cameron County soon could see installation of approximately 37 miles of border fencing, following the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's rejection of the county's proposed alternative to the fence.

The DHS said the county's proposal to combine the Rio Grande's levees with the planned U.S. border fence is not feasible and would be much more costly than anticipated. Although no construction date has been set, the DHS hopes to have fence construction finished this year.

County Judge Carlos H. Cascos on Tuesday said he suspected this would be the outcome.

"We did everything that we could do (to offer them an alternative to fence construction)," Cascos said. "It's unfortunate, but we have to move."

The county was notified Monday afternoon of DHS's decision. A letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to Cascos said the "key factors" in reaching the conclusion pertains to the cost and coordination with the International Boundary and Water Commission, which is working on levee improvements in the Cameron County area.

"We do not believe it will be feasible to collaborate with them in a joint levee-barrier project,'' wrote W. Ralph Basham, commissioner for CBP, in the letter.

"As we proceed with planned installation of border security fencing in Cameron County, we will maintain open dialogue with your community and affected landowners," the letter further states.

Cascos said he asked for something in writing, so there would be "no misunderstanding" of the government's decision.

The judge said he will also request something in writing from IBWC Commissioner Carlos Marin stating that "these levees are going to be fine" and will meet FEMA guidelines and requirements.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement that he was disappointed by the decision given the fact that he and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had attempted to intervene on the county's behalf requesting that the DHS consider the county's proposal.

"While costs should always be a concern when it comes to the use of taxpayer dollars, this was a common-sense solution that put federal dollars to good use not only for the safety of local residents but also for our national security," Cornyn statement said. "The levee proposal is the type of innovative solution DHS should be pursuing as we work to secure the borders. I will continue to work with county officials and DHS as we move forward."

The DHS letter comes about a week after reports that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers was soliciting bids for fencing in the county. Seven companies were invited to bid on the fence. As of Tuesday, no bids have been awarded.

Cameron County had hoped a memorandum of understanding between the county and IBWC signed last week would steer the county closer to getting federal approval on its proposed border fence/levee project.

For more than a month, county officials have been awaiting word from DHS on whether it would approve the county's alternative to a border fence.

The MOU was similar to the one signed by Hidalgo County officials earlier this year. It was expected to be sent to IBWC last week.

Although County Commissioners approved the memorandum of understanding, they also authorized the removal of some language that International Boundary and Water Commission might had wanted included.

The memorandum would not be validated unless the DHS approved the county's fence/levee proposal.

The two paragraphs removed from the memorandum included that the county has funding for the agreement and the county understands that the DHS is not obligated to make any reimbursements to the county.

County officials had been visiting with officials at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, to find out the DHS's plans.

"They are going to be doing something," is what UTB-TSC officials told the county, Cascos said.

Federal officials opted not to build a fence on the UTB-TSC campus, which would have divided it, because the university came up with an alternative proposal that got DHS approval.

Meanwhile, several lawsuits filed by landowners against the DHS are pending in federal court.

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