Today three judges from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the rights of Baldomero and Hilaria Muñiz, and Pamela Rivas. Both families live in Los Ebanos and are refusing DHS access to survey their properties prior to building a border wall. Those arguments can be heard here.
All three judges are white, and all three were nominated by Republican presidents. Judge E. Grady Jolly and Judge Edith Brown Clement seemed rather unsympathetic to the arguments of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid lawyer Jerome Wesevich, whose voice was shaky, and seemed off balance throughout his argument. Judge Clement was the most antagonistic and offensive on the three judge panel. She scoffed at the concern of the landowners that their properties could be severely damaged. Although DHS’ own language says the government can destroy buildings in the way of survey equipment, she mocked the property owners’ concerns by saying that DHS “might trim some hedges.” She also invoked the term “illegal aliens.” And although Judge Jolly later referenced the landowners’ inability to speak English as a reason to sympathize with regular people being bullied by their government, Judge Clement seemed to think their Spanish language was making it unreasonable for DHS to do it’s job (as if we were here to facilitate our government’s attacking us, rather than the government being here to serve its people). Judge Priscilla Richman Owen, the lone Texan on the bench, did not question Wesevich.
When his turn arrived, DHS attorney John Arbab was quickly cut off by Judge Jolly because DHS’ position is that the 5th Circuit did not have jurisdiction to hear the cases. His basic sense of fairness was offended by the government’s claim that they could condemn property without the landowner being able to sue and appeal. But Arbab seemed to me to successfully parry the judge’s questions and argued calmly and confidently.
Judge Clement appeared most interested to know if the Los Ebanos families were basically alone, or whether other residents along the route of the wall were also suing. According to DHS’ Arbab, there are 250 cases, 193 “footprint cases” and 57 “right of entry cases.” (This number will increase when the Texas Border Coalition processes the more than 120 affidavits of Brownsville landowners who, thanks to the assistance of Border Ambassadors and C.A.S.A., recently started the legal process of suing DHS.)
Graphiti Artist Banksy
As for Judge Owen, I would guess that of the three, this George W. Bush appointee is our best ally. She questioned why the pre-suit offer of DHS to landowners was $0. She also seemed upset that DHS was suing for access to survey when independent of any survey DHS has determined that a fence is needed and has filed a condemnation lawsuit as well, thus getting the cart before the horse, and assuming the outcome of the case being argued while simultaneously making it appear unnecessary for DHS to survey.
During his time for rebuttal, Wesevich performed much better, arguing much more confidently. Despite a comfortably closed-minded Clement, Wesevich pushed back. Still, Judge Jolly ended the session with the statement that the landowners “need lawyers, but they don’t need lawyers,” meaning, they need someone who lets them know that they have a right to negotiate for a price, but not someone who is going to sue. Hopefully that doesn’t mean Judge Jolly wishes to sweep the rights of border residents under the rug.
I’m not a lawyer yet, but I’d guess that these Los Ebanos families will lose their right of access cases, but that the 5th Circuit will claim jurisdiction, ensuring each landowner the opportunity to appeal.
The Border Ambassadors, led by Jay Johnson-Castro, passed out fliers for TRLA in Los Ebanos during the Warch Against the Border Wall from March 8 – 16, 2008. TRLA had already announced their information session to the residents of Los Ebanos before we arrived, and it is impossible to know whether we helped encourage the members of the Rivas or Muñiz families, but I’d like to think we didn’t hurt. I vividly remember hobbling up to Mike Johnson with his wife Cindy in the distance, also with tired legs and sore feet, handing out our last TRLA information fliers. We worked not until we were tired or in pain (we were tired and in pain before we started), but until we were out of fliers.
Jeanette Ruiz and her family marching against the Border Wall
Those are the kinds of selfless acts, passing out fliers after already marching all day in the hot sun, that drive this movement and make me proud of those I work alongside. The weekend before the Brownsville City Commission met to vote on whether to give city land to DHS to build a wall, another Border Ambassador and I, Jeanette Ruiz, working in conjunction with C.A.S.A., met a tattooed and pierced young man who lives along the fence’s route. Although he had to work until after the start of the city meeting, he said that he would pick up his mother and come late. And thank heaven they did. His witty humor kept me from becoming angry, and his mother, pleading in Spanish for help maintaining the home (not just the house) where she raised her family, broke the hearts of all those in attendance. She was the heroine of the night. The courageous Dr. Tamez calmly and eloquently conveyed her conviction. Mr. Paz from Sabal Palms also provided necessary support. Mr. and Mrs. Lucio from Ft. Brown made their persuasive and thoughtful argument. Michelle Taylor and her husband were at their courageous best. Others of us less prominent Brownsvillians made valuable input, speaking truth to power. And we will never know who influenced whom, or what the outcome of the vote would have been without all of these people acting together. But like the widow and her mites in Jesus’ parable, by finding the courage to plead with the commissioners, this humble woman from La Moria cast in more than us all.
For the sake of that woman, for the sake of the Muñiz and Rivas families, for the sake of our beloved borderlands where integration, multiculturalism and bilingualism flourish, please join with Border Ambassadors, No Border Wall Coalition, C.A.S.A., or any other organization you feel comfortable working with (and if that doesn’t work, just find a friend), and go door-to-door along the fence route, in whatever town you live, collecting signatures on the Texas Border Coalition’s Affidavit. We need your help.