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September 10, 1998
H.R. 2538 would create a commission to address the validity of claims
asserted by the descendants of Mexican citizens to land in New Mexico based
on 19th century Spanish and Mexican community land grants. The
Administration is sympathetic to those individuals who believe their land
claims have been inappropriately or unfairly handled. However, the
Administration opposes the bill because its approach is flawed and
In summary, this bill would renew land title disputes that already have been resolved by an international agreement or operation of law, in many cases over 50 years ago. It would create a process that provides no legal standards or rules of evidence, no means for final resolution of these reopened claims, and no judicial review. In addition, this bill could disrupt Federal land managers' abilities to carry out their duties, including protection of natural resources and of existing uses and rights on Federal land including grazing, hunting, fishing, and mineral and water rights. A fuller explanation of these issues is presented below.
Consideration of these claims would renew land title disputes that have already been fully and finally resolved either by the 1941 Claims Settlement Agreement between the United States and Mexico, or through adjudication. Any claims not previously adjudicated are barred by relevant statutes of limitation, which are based on fundamental policy concerns of fairness, finality, and resource conservation.
In addition, the bill envisions that public lands would be removed from Federal ownership to satisfy these claims, thus disrupting Federal land management activities. These activities include the conservation and preservation of national forests, monuments, parks, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and cultural and prehistoric sites. Further, recreation, hunting, and fishing on Federal lands would be adversely affected, and valid existing rights to, or interests in, water, timber, grazing, and minerals on Federal lands may be disturbed.
Further, H.R. 2538 would institute a flawed process. Although it is claimed that H.R. 2538 is modeled on the Indian Claims Commission Act (ICCA), the ICCA provided for monetary compensation, not the reconstitution of land grants. Moreover, the ICCA provided for judicial determination of claims, according to certain legal standards and subject to the appellate process. H.R. 2538 does not appear to provide any legal standards or rules of evidence and does not allow for judicial review of the commission's recommendations before they are submitted to Congress. Finally, H.R. 2538 could have several other problematic results for both land claimants and private landowners. The existence of the Commission will raise unrealistic expectations that land claims now closed will be addressed. Furthermore, although private land cannot be transferred under H.R. 2538, the commission's recommendations pertaining to claims to private lands could cloud private land titles. Although H.R. 2538 would affect only lands in New Mexico, 19th century land claims in many other states were resolved in a manner similar to those in New Mexico. This bill's passage would logically prompt calls for the creation of similar commissions in other States with the attendant problems outlined above.
H.R. 2538 would affect receipts; therefore, it is subject to the pay-as-you-go requirement of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. OMB's preliminary scoring estimate of this bill is zero. Final scoring of this legislation may deviate from these estimates. If H.R. 2538 were enacted, final OMB scoring estimates would be published within seven working days of enactment, as required by OBRA. The cumulative effects of all enacted legislation on direct spending and receipts will be reported to Congress at the end of the congressional session, as required by OBRA.