Violence at the U.S.-Mexico border as a presidential election nears

Law enforcement deploys tear gas and rubber bullets in confrontation with Indigenous activists.


On Oct. 12, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a group of Indigenous activists, allies, and citizens of the Tohono O’odham Nation blocked a Border Patrol checkpoint in the southern Arizona borderlands. Gathered in song and prayer, they were protesting the construction of the border wall, and the violation of O’odham sovereignty from the constant presence of federal officers on their land. The action, while defiant, was peaceful, a spokesperson for the groups who organized the event, said. The response from law enforcement was not. 

After a half hour or so, as traffic backed up, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers warned the protesters to move out of the way. Soon after, a line of officers in bulletproof vests and black helmets advanced, deploying a cloud of tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in war, and shooting a tribal member at close range in the chest with a rubber bullet.

“Did we resist and stand peacefully? Absolutely,” V, the spokesperson who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said. “But for them to respond to us in that manner with such violence and disregard to that action of solidarity that day, it is horrifying to think what they are going to do next if we continue to stand for our sovereign Indigenous rights.” In an email, the Department of Public Safety said that it decided to use the “less lethal” munitions after protestors tried to throw the gas canisters back at the state troopers. Eleven people, including three minors, were arrested.

“Yet time and again, the Trump Administration has failed to respond, continued to plow ahead, and completely bypassed the legally required consultation and notification processes.”

In the past few months, Indigenous activists have led numerous protests against the border wall construction, which is destroying cultural, religious and burial sites and threatening Quitobaquito Springs, an important ceremonial site on the ancestral land of the Hia-ched O’odham, a federally unrecognized tribe. Tohono O’odham tribal leaders say they have not been meaningfully consulted by the federal government, despite writing letters, holding meetings and offering congressional testimony. “Yet time and again, the Trump Administration has failed to respond, continued to plow ahead, and completely bypassed the legally required consultation and notification processes,” Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said in a statement. “This is why these individuals feel they have no choice but to take to the streets to protest these destructive activities. This is a travesty that was entirely avoidable.”

The Tohono O’odham Nation’s lands were forcibly divided in 1854 by the United States and Mexico, creating part of the current international boundary. As a result, the tribe has been caught in the crosshairs of federal operations such as Operation Gatekeeper in the early ‘90s, which pushed migrants into the harsh desert, funneling migration and smuggling onto tribal land. This, in turn, fueled the growing deployment of Border Patrol officers. For the past few decades, the tribe has cooperated with federal agencies and spent an average of $3 million annually on border security — assisting in everything from the removal of abandoned vehicles used by smugglers to the autopsies of migrants who have died while trying to cross their land. But even Tohono O’odham cooperation with federal agencies hasn’t protected tribal members from Border Patrol harassment.

Tribal members like V, who identify as part of the O’odham Nation — a broader name inclusive of multiple O’odham bands — have accused the Border Patrol of frequent racial profiling, heavy surveillance and harassment. Tribal members have been deported to Mexico by federal agents for crossing through their own land. The Indigenous PeoplesDay protest was not just about recent events, V said, but about decades of harassment by Border Patrol as well as the violation of Indigenous sovereignty shown by the constant federal presence on the increasingly militarized Borderlands. 

Similar scenes have been unfolding some 300 miles away from the Tohono Oodham-led protests. Throughout the summer, ongoing protests on Kumeyaay lands in the San Diego region were frequently met by Border Patrol officers, as well as, in at least one case, a violent counterprotester. Cynthia Parada, a tribal council member of the La Posta Band of Diegueño Mission Indians, said that the federal government has not thoroughly consulted with tribal nations in the region about border wall construction, nor has it rigorously examined the area for burial grounds or other remains. Im tired of us being on the back burner of these projects where they can desecrate, where they can do whatever they want, and we just have to deal with it,Parada told local TV station KYMA.

Kumeyaay-led protests have interrupted construction multiple times, and in September, two protesters were arrested on public land after the Bureau of Land Management issued anemergency closure (They were released without charges shortly afterward). The La Posta Band, one of 12 Kumeyaay bands in the region, filed a lawsuit requesting a pause to construction, alleging the desecration of burial grounds and violation of their constitutional rights. More recently, the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation filed a similar suit. In both cases, federal judges denied the request.

Im tired of us being on the back burner of these projects where they can desecrate, where they can do whatever they want, and we just have to deal with it.

Legal recourse has been made more difficult for the 26 tribal nations in the Borderlands by the Department of Homeland Securitys decision to waive dozens of Arizona and California laws including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Actto fast track construction of the border wall. (See sidebar for more.)

Other litigation has moved forward, though: In October, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a lawsuit on improper border wall funding, brought by the Sierra Club and supported by the Tohono Oodham. That lawsuit argues that President Donald Trumps emergency declaration last February diverting billions of military funds for border wall construction was illegal. The case will not be heard until after the election, likely in 2021.

The fate of the border wall could well be decided by this presidential election. At a recent event in Yuma, Arizona, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf confirmed the administrations plans to finish building over 450 miles of the new border wall systemby the end of the year. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has told reporters that there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.He has not committed to taking the existing wall down.

Biden and Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris met this October with five tribal leaders, including Tohono Oodham Nations Norris Jr., who has emphasized the importance of Natives and non-Natives voting their conscience in this election. The Trump administration has not expressed any willingness to work with the Nation,Norris said in a recent online forum on the border wall. It is all the more important that we turn out to vote.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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