Customs and Border Protection

In Zapata County, Local Government Is Fighting the Federal Government to Stop One Piece of the Border Wall

The rural border county is digging in and challenging the Department of Homeland Security in court over the government’s attempt to gain access to small tract of county-owned land.

The Trump administration’s ambitious, election-year goal to build hundreds of miles of barriers on the southern border could face a roadblock in one South Texas county.

The commissioners court in Zapata County, a rural community that sits between Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, is digging in and challenging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in federal court over the government’s attempt to gain access to a small tract of county-owned land. The access would allow federal officials the right to survey property for possible future construction projects and is considered a procedural first step.

But that’s not how the county sees it, said attorney Carlos Flores, who is representing the county.

“For the [Trump administration] it’s just a routine matter. But the county has taken the position that they are not going to approach it that way,” he said. “Zapata County is not looking to reach an agreement, but rather challenge the authority of the federal government to do this."

The action in Zapata comes during a busy eight months in Texas for an administration trying to make good on the president's campaign promise to build a "big, beautiful" wall on the border. In November, the administration moved ahead with construction of new barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. That was followed by notices to landowners in Webb County telling them that DHS officials were moving ahead with surveys on private land.

And last month, the administration announced it was waiving several environmental policies to help fast track construction of about 70 miles of new barrier from north of Laredo to Zapata County.

Now Zapata County is trying to protect a roughly four-acre tract of land that’s home to a bird sanctuary in the town of San Ygnacio, which lies about 35 miles south of Laredo.

“We attract a lot of visitors to that area, it’s a habitat that we don’t want necessarily to be disturbed,” said Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell.

The historic Fort Treviño, which has stood for nearly two centuries and was designated a national historical monument in 1998, is adjacent to the property.

“It’s important for the court to figure out what exactly is the plan for these areas,” Rathmell said, adding that the commissioners court isn't against border security. He said National Guard soldiers are a familiar sight in the area and Homeland Security has installed an aerostat blimp for surveillance, which most of the community is fine with.

“We just don’t feel a physical barrier is the best solution for our county,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security filed a complaint against the county in May seeking access to the tract of land for a one-year period to allow federal agents to “to conduct surveying, testing, and other investigatory work” to plan for the planned construction of a barrier, roads, cameras or other border security infrastructure.

In its response on June 8, the county fired back and accused the department of overstepping its authority by failing to consult with federal agencies like the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture, and with property owners in the area “to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce, and quality of life for the communities and residents” near the site. The county also alleges the federal government failed to properly negotiate with county officials over a fixed price, as required by law.

The next step is a pre-trial conference scheduled for August. Flores said the court case could extend into the fall. He added that the fight isn’t just an attempt to run out the clock and hope that the November election brings a new administration.

“It’s not just a delay tactic, it’s actually a ‘Let’s go on the offensive’ [mentality],” Flores said. “We also have to have a strategy if there isn’t a change in the White House, and I think that this is the moment to be prepared for that.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/22/texas-border-wall-zapata-county-fighting-trump-administration/.

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