Incidents Renew Ranch's Border Patrol Ban
By ROSS E. MILLOY
April 1 -- After government vehicles ran over and
injured illegal immigrants on a vast cattle ranch here twice in the
past month, the ranch's owners notified the United States Border Patrol
that its agents could no longer pursue their quarry on ranch property.
"We're in a hard
situation," said Richard Leshin, a lawyer for the John G.
and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, a charitable organization
that owns the Kenedy Ranch.
which has strong ties to the Catholic Church, made its
decision because it believes that the Border Patrol has been violating
immigrants' human rights.
As a result,
Mr. Leshin said, "The government has told us that they have
the authority to seize the ranch because we are in violation of federal law,
and that's a major concern for the foundation's directors."
For their part,
Border Patrol officials say that while they have the right to
seize the ranch, they do not plan to. But they say they expect the
foundation to allow agents to patrol the area freely, which, they say, is
necessary to control illegal immigration.
Each month, several
thousand undocumented immigrants try to slip past
the Border Patrol's K-24 checkpoint in the middle of ranch property on
Highway 77, just south of Sarita, the Border Patrol said. Many of the
immigrants enter the largely uninhabited 235,000-acre ranch, one of the
largest in Texas, in hopes of escaping north.
rolling plains of scrub chaparral and mesquite trees, the
checkpoint and the 90 agents who operate it are like a dike against the
human river of illegal aliens, said Fred Borrego, a Border Patrol
are poor, they're hungry, they're desperate, and they'll do
anything to keep from being caught," Mr. Borrego said. "But it's our job
to stop them."
He said agents
capture 1,800 to 2,200 undocumented immigrants near
the checkpoint every month, about half the total he estimated moves
through the area.
can see dozens of suspected illegals from the checkpoint
and can't do anything about it if we can't get on to Kenedy Ranch
property," he said.
has been controversial for years. A University of
Houston study found that in 1996, 19 immigrants died of heat stroke and
other exposure-related causes while trying to evade the checkpoint.
Because of ongoing
internal investigations by the Border Patrol, Mr.
Borrego would not discuss details of what he called the "unfortunate
accidents" in which the immigrants were recently injured.
On March 2, agents
working west of K-24 ran over the right arm of
Victor Manuel, 25, while pursuing about 25 people suspected of being
undocumented immigrants; on March 7, another vehicle struck Armando
Leal, who was hiding in high grass, Border Patrol incident reports said.
Mr. Leal suffered
major injuries to his back and pelvis that required
surgery and was released on March 17 from Christus Spohn Memorial
Hospital in Corpus Christi, hospital officials said.
The Kenedy Foundation
banned agents once before, in 1995, when
vehicles operating off the ranch's paved roads ignited grass fires and
agents damaged gates and fences, Mr. Leshin said. Border Patrol agents
also fished and hunted on ranch property without permission, he said.
1998, Mr. Leshin said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
warned the Kenedy Foundation that the government was considering
seizing the ranch because of the ban, and a settlement was signed in
September 1999 that required federal officials to notify the foundation
before they pursued immigrants beyond paved roads on ranch property.
in which the two immigrants were injured broke that
agreement, and the foundation's board voted March 17 to ban federal
agents from its property," Mr. Leshin said.
The ranch is
used primarily for cattle and oil operations but also allows
nature tourists to prowl its coastal prairies and sand dunes in search of
the 200 species of migratory birds present in the spring.
law, agents have the right to enter any property within 25
miles of United States boundaries. Although the Kenedy Ranch is nearly
100 miles from the Mexican border, its land extends almost to the Gulf of
Mexico, which officials say is an international boundary.
has the authority to seize the ranch, but I don't know
that there is any current talk of doing that," said Perry Cronin, a
spokesman for the Border Patrol's regional district office in McAllen,
Tex. "We're still in the talking stages, and no agreements have been
Both Mr. Cronin
and Nancy Cohen, with the Immigration and
Naturalization Service in Washington, said they were unaware of any
case in which the government had seized private property in such
immigrants in El Paso, Houston and the Lower Rio
Grande Valley say disputes with the Border Patrol over access to private
property and injuries caused by agents pursuing immigrants have
increased along the border in recent years as enforcement efforts have
have the right to seek jobs across borders without being
herded and hunted like animals," said Nathan Selzer of Proyecto
Libertad, an immigrant legal aid organization based in Harlingen, Tex.
"It's an affront to human dignity."
of the American Friends Service Committee in Houston
said that, increasingly, residents along the border "are beginning to object
to the numbers of Border Patrol agents coming onto their property."
She added, "We're
hearing many more complaints in recent years about
Ms. Jimenez said
those problems include at least two or three incidents a
year of what she called "rundowns" by agents chasing immigrants with