SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. court has given the government permission to survey a parcel of land for a proposed fence along the Texas-Mexico border, in the first of more than 100 lawsuits threatened against recalcitrant landowners, a Justice Department spokesman said on Tuesday.
The decision in federal court is a potentially important step toward construction of a barrier aimed at keeping illegal immigrants from crossing the Rio Grande into the United States.
Resistance to the fence has been strong in heavily Hispanic southern Texas, where many have refused to let federal teams on their land to make surveys and conduct soil tests on potential wall sites.
On Monday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in Del Rio, Texas, against the city of Eagle Pass, Texas requesting access for 180 days to 233 acres, which, according to Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames, was granted by the court.
Ames did not say when survey teams would go to the site, but that more lawsuits could be expected “at any time.”
“There are a number of cases we intend to file, we are working to coordinate the filing of the cases and moving forward methodically,” said Ames in an email response to questions.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is overseeing border wall construction, has said 102 lawsuits, the majority in Texas, would be filed against landowners who have refused to let federal surveyors onto their land.
In December, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sent letters to the resisters warning of possible legal action.
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said in an interview his border city would “aggressively fight” the lawsuit and that he expected local governments along the Rio Grande to join in.
He heads the Texas Border Coalition of local governments and business owners, which has been outspoken in its opposition to the wall. Cross-border ties run deep in southern Texas and many there believe the wall is an insult to U.S. Hispanics and to Mexico.
The federal Secure Fence Act of 2006 signed by President George W. Bush calls for up to 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico.
Homeland Security wants to build about 70 miles of it in southern Texas.
Foster said the proposed wall will do little to stop illegal immigrants.
“We will continue this fight against something which any number of organizations, from the Congressional Research Service to the Heritage Foundation, have said will be damaging to the environment, will be a waste of money and will not work,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Houston