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


Page 3

It is unlikely construction of a full-scale border fence will occur anytime soon on the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Secure Fence Act signed by President Bush on Oct. 26, 2006, authorizes partial funding for the “possible” construction of 700 miles of fencing and barriers along the border. The Congressional Research Service estimates the entire barrier would cost $50 billion.

A separate Homeland Security Department law authorized spending an initial $1.2 billion for border fencing. But that law also withholds $950 million until Congress approves the department’s plan for spending the money.

In January, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House will reconsider the border fence, and Democratic committee chairmen are holding up the $950 million in funding until Homeland Security presents its comprehensive border-security plan. There also are bipartisan calls for reviewing the wall. The two Republican senators from Texas, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey-Hutchinson, advocate revising the fence plan.

Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security awarded the Boeing Co. a contract to construct a series of 1,800 towers equipped with cameras, sensors and computer links — part of a plan for a $2.8 billion “virtual” fence that would monitor the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff has said that an eight-month, $67 million test of such a virtual barrier along a 28-mile stretch of border south of Tucson and east of the Tohono O’odham Nation will be conducted before any permanent fence is constructed.

There is nothing virtual about the problems the Border Patrol faces on the Tohono O’odham Nation. As it tries to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and narcotics into the U.S., the agency must also take into consideration the unique cross-border orientation of the O’odham. “These are the normal migration and normal historical paths that the O’odham have used for centuries,” says Gustavo Soto, a public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which includes the reservation.

O’odham with tribal identification cards will continue to be allowed free access across the border, regardless of citizenship status, Soto says. There is, however, no written agreement between the tribe and federal authorities on allowing unfettered passage or on maintaining the informal border crossings. “That is an unofficial agreement we have with the Nation,” Soto says.

The likely delay and possible scrapping of the border fence constitute welcome news for traditional O’odham, who strongly oppose a fence that would restrict movement of people and animals, says Ofelia Rivas, a leader in the O’odham Rights Cultural and Environmental Coalition. Traditional O’odham, she says, are very concerned that they will be prevented from crossing through checkpoints at the border if a wall is built. Many O’odham who were born in Mexico are not recognized as American citizens, Rivas notes, and cannot obtain passports, even though they are enrolled members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“A lot of people don’t have birth certificates,” says the 50-year-old activist, who holds a degree in fine arts from Northern Arizona University. “I was born at home, and I don’t have a birth record.”

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Congress was poised to pass legislation that would have made all enrolled Tohono O’odham members, including those who live in Mexico, U.S. citizens. But the bill died in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Fifty miles west of the San Miguel Gate is another cattle-guard crossing, at Maneger’s Dam, the reservation’s westernmost gate. Located about 20 miles south of the village of Gu Vo, the gate is in an area that has been hit hard by drug smugglers. The Sierra de Santa Rosa to the west and the Mesquite Mountains to the east provide cover to smugglers, who frequently pass through the area. Police say the mountains disrupt radio transmissions, a fact the smugglers know and exploit.

Several graves are located immediately next to the border. A cement monument marking the international boundary lies about 25 yards south of the barbed-wire fence. The five-foot marker is wrapped in barbed wire and defaced with graffiti.

David Ortega is an O’odham who is tied both to the ways of his people and to the broader American culture. The dual affinity shows in the way he dresses: A feather often sprouts from the back of a black ball cap emblazoned in gold with the letters “USMC.” His ties to both cultures also show in his life experience.

Every year, Ortega says, gazing across the border at tribal lands stretching toward the southern horizon, he and other traditionalists make a four-day trek from the Maneger’s Dam Gate across the desert, over mountain ranges to a sacred spring in the Sonoran village of Quitovac.

Ortega says he served 10 years in the Marine Corps, including a stint in Lebanon during the early 1980s, when a car bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing more than 200. But now, Ortega says, he receives no veterans’ benefits because he was born at home in Mexico and doesn’t have U.S. citizenship.

For Ortega, a physical barrier dividing the O’odham’s traditional lands would be a sacrilege. He says the O’odham were not consulted prior to the creation of the current international boundary.

“They all just got together and said, ‘This is where we are going to cut it in half,’” Ortega says. “Who cares who lives there? Nobody even understood that there were people who lived here.”

In addition to cultural issues, the Border Patrol faces technical problems as it tries to cover the miles of open desert and mountain ranges on the O’odham Reservation. The mountains severely limit lateral movement along the border; the most formidable of these obstacles are the Baboquivari Mountains, which run in a north-south direction along the Tohono O’odham Nation’s eastern boundary.

Famous as home to Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Baboquivaris block the Border Patrol’s direct access to the international boundary. Narcotics and human smugglers take advantage of geography, frequently crossing the border on the eastern and western flanks of the mountains, Soto says.

Just west of the Baboquivari range is the San Miguel Gate, and beyond that nearly 60 miles of open range, where the only barrier to the border is the barbed-wire cattle fence. Smugglers take advantage of the desert terrain by stealing four-wheel-drive vehicles from urban areas, loading them with drugs and/or immigrants and making a Mad Max-like dash across the desert.

“If they destroy the vehicle, they don’t care. It’s not theirs. It’s stolen,” Soto says.

The Border Patrol hopes that vehicle barriers, which will cost about $1 million per mile, can help stop the flow of trafficking across the border. The barriers are made from old railroad tracks welded into an “X” shape and then affixed vertically in the ground.

Like the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Border Patrol opposes construction of a more substantial “secure” fence across much of the border, Soto says. Such a fence, he says, would cause serious environmental impacts on Indian lands. “Our proposal is for vehicle barriers to keep people from driving through, not a wall,” he says.

Some O’odham are skeptical the vehicle barriers will do much good. Tohono O’odham Police Sgt. Elton Begay says most of the traffickers bring stolen vehicles to locations on the U.S. side of the border and wait for smugglers to deliver their loads of drugs and immigrants.

High Country News Classifieds