When the Border Crosses You

American Indian communities on the Southwest border have become ground zero for immigration enforcement. In many cases border surveillance, checkpoints, and the construction of border fences takes place on their aboriginal homelands. Between the restriction of movement, increased drug trafficking activity, and Border Patrol’s abuse of authority, the consequences of immigration and drug laws threaten traditional lifestyles and cultural identities. In American Indian communities within the borderlands, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency closely resembles yet another occupying force.

Tohono O'odham Nation Map
Tohono O’odham Nation Map. Contemporary reservation in Red, Historical lands in Orange.

Prior to the colonization of the Americas, the Tohono O’odham inhabited what is today considered southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. The homeland of the Tohono O’odham was split in two in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase. Though their religious and cultural practices are connected to this geographic location, colonial powers never consulted the tribes when they made the international boundaries. At first, the border was merely symbolic, but as immigration laws changed the O’odham found themselves stopped, searched and sometimes “returned” to Mexico.

With the US-Mexico border cutting their sovereign territory in half, the people of Tohono O’odham are restricted from traveling freely within their own traditional homelands. According to Resolution 98-063 passed by the Tohono legislative council, “enforcement of the U.S. Immigration laws has made it extremely difficult for all Tohono O’odham to continue their sovereign right to pass and re-pass the United States- Mexico border as we have done for centuries as our members are routinely stopped by the U.S. Border when others have been actually ‘returned’ to Mexico even though enrolled”. In addition to the restriction of movement, the occupation of their traditional homelands includes 24-hour border surveillance that uses high-powered lights, drones, and black hawk helicopters.

Border Patrol prohibits tribal members from crossing the border anywhere but the official border crossings, even though some of these routes date back thousands of years and are relevant to their cultural and religious beliefs. The Tohono O’odham nation is the only tribe in the U.S. that grants enrollment to its people who happened to be born in Mexico. Regardless of Mexican citizenship, enrolled tribal members are entitled to health care services provided by the tribe in Arizona. Unfortunately, immigration restrictions have made routine healthcare visits less frequent and more dangerous. For the elders trying to seek medical attention for life threatening diseases, crossing the border often results in returning home if they lack the proper documentation. Enrolled tribal members are supposed to be allowed to freely travel across their land when they present a tribal identification card, birth certificate, or baptismal records. In practice however, this doesn’t always work out, especially for O’Odham elders who were never issued a birth certificate. According to American Indian Policy scholar Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, restrictive border enforcement on tribal land is viewed as an “assault on indigenous sovereignty, as well as an assault on the cultural integrity of native societies.”

Clinton era polices, such as the Southwest Border Strategy, sought to curb unauthorized entries at the busiest illegal crossing points. These policies would force immigrants to enter through the more remote areas or disincentivize immigration all together. One unintended consequence of increased restrictions was that immigrants and drug smugglers started to utilize entry points on tribal land. In 1999 tribal police officers assisted federal border officers with 100 undocumented immigrants per month; by 2002 Tohono O’odham police were assisting with over 800 per month. In 2008, roughly 210,000 pounds of marijuana was confiscated in the territory, increasing to 319,000 pounds in 2009. In 2002 alone, the Tohono O’odham reported about 4 million pounds of trash on tribal lands, as well as 4,500 vehicles abandoned by smugglers or immigrants. Luna-Firebaugh explains that tribes have “been concerned about the degradation of tribal land by federal officials, the cutting of roads in sensitive and/or sacred lands, and high speed pursuits over tribal roads, some of which are unpaved, which endanger tribal members and livestock.”

Within their traditional territory, the Tohono O’odham often encounter desperate immigrants seeking food, water, and shelter. Tribal members are also approached by organized crime. Cartels have been known to approach a Tohono household south of the border with a wad of cash and a bale of marijuana asking that they bring the package up north. The O’odham often worry that if they refuse they will be aggressed against by the cartels. Even without coercion, a poverty rate nearly 3 times that of Arizona creates plenty of incentives for taking advantage of this supplemental income. Many tribal members have been prosecuted for drug smuggling and/ or human trafficking, and in some cases both parents of a household are incarcerated. The problems faced by American Indian communities within the borderlands are a direct consequence of drug prohibition and increased enforcement within the border region. As other contributors to Open Borders have argued, reducing immigration restrictions and ending the war on drugs would weaken criminal gangs that operate within the US-Mexico border region. The tribe is squeezed by organized crime on one hand, and a belligerently unaccountable border patrol on the other.

On the Tohono O’odham nation the Border Patrol routinely violate the rights of American citizens on tribal land. There are countless testimonies by the Tohono O’odham that illustrate the on going abuses ranging from punching, kicking, and/or pepper spraying detainees, to shooting into vehicles. Border Patrol also claims the right to enter onto people’s property- without a warrant- if they are in a “hot pursuit” of an alleged immigrant or drug smuggler. A 2012 report by Amnesty International details how American Indians are subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Border Agents.

The Tohono O’odham aren’t the only tribe affected by heightened border security; there are nearly 30 American Indian tribes living with the consequences of border enforcement. The Lipan Apache of the Texas-Mexico border find their property divided by a recently constructed border fence. In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which allowed the government to waive laws that would interfere with the construction of a border fence. Using this law, the DHS waived a total of 36 federal and state laws including laws protecting indigenous territory and environmental protection regulations. A recent report on the Racially Discriminatory Impact of the Border Wall on the Lipan Apache People of Texas outlines the injustices that the Lipan Apache endure within the borderlands such as restricted access to traditional lands, resources, sacred spaces, the abuse of eminent domain, and the construction of the border wall on the burial ground of Apache elders.

The current situation faced by communities like the Tohono O’odham demonstrates the unintended consequences of poorly constructed policies. On American Indian land within the border regions we find the bloody intersection of the war on drugs, restrictive immigration policies, and the politics of manifest destiny. A policy of open borders would reduce the inadvertent damage done to indigenous people and land while strengthening tribes’ ability to assert sovereignty and self-determination.

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Ruben Pacheco

Ruben earned his BA at the University of New Mexico. He studies and writes on American Indian Policy and Immigration Policy. He currently resides along the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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