One Nation, Under Fire

Illegal drugs and immigrants pour across an open frontier. The government responds with helicopters and ATVs. And the once-quiet desert homeland of the Tohono O’odham Nation becomes a nerve-wracking police state.

  • Baboquivari Peak on the edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation near Tucson

  • A cruiser from the Tohono O'odham tribal police sits on the Arizona side of the San Miguel Gate, one of five crossings that tribal members and illegal immigrants use to enter the United States

  • Harriet Toto, Tohono O'odham Nation


  • David Ortega, Mexican-born member of the Tohono O'odham Nation


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Stepped-up efforts by the Border Patrol and the recent deployment of hundreds of National Guard troops to the area have further increased environmental damage that, tribe members say, will take decades, if not longer, to repair.

The Tohono O’odham Reservation’s wide-open U.S.-Mexico border is both a link to tribal tradition and an enabler of modern social ills. To limit those ills, and with the blessing of tribal government leaders, the Border Patrol and National Guard have begun construction of vehicle barriers that will eventually span the reservation’s border with Mexico. The barriers, which resemble the tank traps lining the beaches of Normandy during World War II, will allow people and animals — but not the cars and trucks that ferry illegal immigrants and drugs — to cross.

But the tribal leadership opposes the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which calls for construction of a barrier that will vary in design depending on the terrain. In most of the desert it will be a solid steel wall similar to barriers near San Diego and other urban areas. In desert areas where the border crosses washes, the barrier will be a chain-link fence. In other areas, it will have a buffer zone between rows of fencing. An all-weather road would run parallel to the wall.

The proposed barrier would follow 700 miles of the border from Texas to California, including 75 miles of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The fence, tribal officials say, would prevent the free flow of O’odham across their traditional lands, as well as restrict migration of animals.

“We would like to reduce, really reduce, the flow of what they call illegal aliens,” says Harriet Toto, an executive assistant to tribal chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders. “At the same time, we want our people to be recognized as members of the (Tohono O’odham) Nation and be free to come back and forth as they have for centuries.”

But if one thing has become clear on the reservation, it is that the situation now is not anything like it has ever been.

Caught in a crossfire between smugglers and government forces, the O’odham have watched their once-tranquil home in America’s desert outback become a nerve-wracking police state. Helicopters hover, Border Patrol all-terrain vehicles carve up the desert, police routinely pull over tribal members searching for contraband, and smugglers bang on the doors of residents, demanding supplies.

The O’odham are believed to be descendants of the Hohokam, who occupied central and southern Arizona and the northern parts of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua from 200 BC to about 1450 AD. Like their predecessors, the O’odham traditionally were farmers, growing corn, beans and cotton. (Many O’odham, in fact, are now returning to the farming of traditional crops in an attempt to stem a diabetes epidemic that now afflicts half of the tribe’s adult population — one of the highest rates in the world.)

In Pre-Columbian America, the O’odham were scattered across the vast Sonoran Desert. The tribe resisted the early incursions of Spanish missionaries, staging major rebellions in the 1660s and 1750s. The insurrections forced the Spanish to retreat to the south. But the tribe’s traditional lands were sliced in half in 1853, when the U.S. bought southern Arizona from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, creating the present international border.

The United States created a reservation for the Tohono O’odham in 1874, by executive order. The current form of tribal government was instituted in the 1930s and is based in Sells, the Nation’s largest town, with a population of about 2,000. The 2.8 million-acre reservation is divided into 13 districts, two of which are adjacent to the U.S.-Mexican border.

The tribe is genuinely poverty-stricken, with unemployment hovering around 42 percent, and with 40 percent of O’odham living below poverty level. The 2000 per capita income of $8,000 is only 33 percent of the American average and far below the $13,000 average for Native American tribes.

The tribe’s biggest employers and revenue generators are three casinos that employ about 1,400 workers, half of whom are O’odham. The first casino opened in 1993, and gambling revenue has helped fund modern infrastructure on the remote reservation, including a new hospital, a nursing home, a community college, five recreation centers and a museum and culture center.

Approximately $60 million in casino revenue has been used to administer and finance post-high school education; so far, some 3,500 O’odham have received educational stipends. The recent efforts to improve education and training opportunities, however, follow many decades of a crippling high school dropout rate (currently 48 percent).

Though impoverished, until recently O’odham routinely extended a helping hand to illegal immigrants crossing their lands. Many immigrants are from indigenous cultures in southern Mexico and Central and South America, and the O’odham have felt kinship for them.

“Throughout my whole lifetime, I know we always fed them and gave them water,” Toto says during an interview at the tribal headquarters in Sells.

A middle-aged woman who has spent most of her adult life in and around tribal politics, Toto recently moved from Sells to a home a few miles north of the San Miguel Gate. Sells, which offers little more than a grocery store, gas station, bank and few small shops, is the main commercial center of the sprawling reservation. It’s also the center for tribal governmental services that provide nearly 1,000 jobs to O’odham.

Toto says she moved out of Sells to live in a quieter location. Instead, she says, her new home is engulfed by the frantic and dangerous world of smuggling. Gone are the days of a few immigrants casually walking by on their way to jobs, friends and family in the U.S.

“It used to be they would take time out and do some chores, clean your yard and things like that,” Toto says. “But now, they are in a hurry because of the increase in Border Patrol, and they want to get out of there, so they have become more demanding.”

What was once a trickle has turned into a flood — reportedly as many as 1,500 illegal immigrants a day cross tribal lands — and the onslaught is ruining daily life for many tribal members. And both the immigration wave and the government’s attempts to stem it have had enormous environmental impacts.

“They come at all hours of the day and night,” Toto says. “They will be pounding on your windows asking for food and water.”

Nothing on the reservation, it seems, is safe from being stolen — clothes, food, vehicles, cell phones, electronics and, increasingly, bicycles, which allow immigrants to cross the desert more quickly than hiking would. More than 3,000 bicycles have been found abandoned in the northern and eastern parts of the reservation. (Tribal officials say illegal immigrants dump the bikes after reaching pickup points near Interstate highways 8 and 10.)

But bikes aren’t even the beginning of the reservation’s trash problem. Immigrants leave personal belongings throughout the reservation, either when they are arrested by Border Patrol or as they are picked up by smugglers taking them to destinations north. The tribe has removed more than 80 tons of trash from 128 sites since September 2004, says Gary Olson, manager of the tribe’s solid waste management program. Beyond the 1,500 or so vehicles removed from the reservation each year, another 200 vehicles have been abandoned in parts of the reservation so remote that they cannot be reached by tow trucks.

“We know how much we have cleaned up, but we don’t know how much more we have to clean up,” Olson says.

Increased enforcement by the Border Patrol has also harmed the desert, as ever more wildcat roads are cut through the southern part of the reservation. “A lot of time they (Border Patrol officers) make their own roads and go wherever they want to go,” Toto says. “Our people feel it is disrespectful to go into areas where they are disturbing archeological sites.”

The tribe, she says, wants the Border Patrol to increase enforcement efforts at the immediate border, rather than spreading its resources across the sprawling reservation, which spans three counties in southwestern Arizona. “We would prefer that the Border Patrol and National Guard stay at the border and send (migrants) away before they cross over,” she says. “We really feel strongly about this. Eventually, if the immigration doesn’t stop, tribal leaders might support construction of the wall.”

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