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A border fence could seal off a tiny Texas chapel, but its worshipers aren't giving up

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Building a fence, let alone a wall, in the Rio Grande Valley is geographically tricky. The Rio Grande winds north and south, east and west, through what's essentially a delta, around homes, farms, cemeteries, churches and other landmarks. That's why much of the new fence will be built atop a levee, in some cases miles north of the river.

In the past, when the Border Patrol built fences in the valley north of homes and businesses, it installed locked gates and shared the combinations with property owners. Some complained the gates were left closed and restricted access to public sites, like parks. Others said they had a chilling effect, scaring people away who mistakenly believed land south of the fence was in Mexico.

In recent months, property owners along the planned path of the fence have been receiving letters from federal officials, but little information about construction plans. First, the letters asked for permission to survey. In some cases, they notified residents that the government was suing them in federal court to access the land.

More recently, they offered to buy some plots outright for about $32,000, a lowball offer considering the stakes. During the last major federal effort to survey and build in Texas' Rio Grande Valley -- in 2006 following the Secure Fence Act -- property owners who hired attorneys sold their land for millions.

This time, many owners have already consented to have their land surveyed. Some are considering whether to sell or hire lawyers to negotiate.

Selling was not an option at La Lomita. The local bishop and diocese have fought the fence and the government efforts to survey. After the federal government sued for access to the land, church attorneys argued that the fence would block access to the chapel, infringe on religious freedom and counteract the church's message of inclusion.

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On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane in nearby McAllen ruled that government surveyors could access the church property on terms set by the local diocese. Crane said he has visited the chapel and that surveying wouldn't constitute a "substantial burden" on religious freedom.

An attorney for the federal government said the 150-foot enforcement zone might be adjusted at La Lomita, according to a diocese attorney. Snipes, who had been at court, said he took that as encouraging news.

Border Patrol officials have not met with the priest or many other residents in the path of the fence to discuss their plans, despite repeated requests for public meetings. Officials have also declined to release updated maps of the project.

It wasn't clear Friday when surveying would start at La Lomita, or how intrusive it would be. Carlos Diaz, a Border Patrol spokesman, declined to answer questions about the project, including whether there would be an enforcement zone at La Lomita or elsewhere, citing the pending federal lawsuit.

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