Border crackdown vexes tribe ; The Tohono O'odham, whose lands span southern Arizona and northern Mexico, say they are often humiliated when crossing between countries. They are lobbying for U.S. citizenship for all members.:[Chicagoland Final Edition]
Judith Graham, Tribune national correspondentChicago TribuneChicago, Ill.: Dec 30, 2001.  pg. 14
Full Text (1053   words)

Copyright 2001 by the Chicago Tribune)


Long before there was a United States, the Tohono O'odham Indians roamed the vast Sonoran Desert, taking refuge near mountains during the summer and harvesting the fruit of giant saguaro cactus in the spring.

Today, this 24,000-member Indian nation, whose traditional lands encompass large parts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona, is divided by the U.S.-Mexican border, where armed federal agents search for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants.

Elders say they are regularly stopped by the Border Patrol and asked for documents proving their citizenship, which many don't have. Members have stopped visiting their relatives living on the Mexican side or traveling to traditional religious festivals. People are afraid.

"This is wrong. They stop our cars and point rifles at our head. This is our land, from time immemorial," said Henry Ramon, vice chairman of the nation, which was formally recognized by the U.S. in 1937.

The Tohono O'odham is the only American Indian nation that has members officially recognized by the government on both sides of the border.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting border clampdown, the Tohono O'odham, whose name means "Desert People," had mounted a new campaign to seek assistance from Congress.

After tribal members traveled to Washington to buttonhole lawmakers last spring, Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) introduced a bill now supported by more than 115 members of Congress. The bill would grant U.S. citizenship to anyone officially enrolled as a member of the Tohono O'odham nation, including 1,400 people living in Mexico.

Pastor said this month he would call for congressional hearings on the Tohono O'odham's difficulties next year.

The Indians say that the war on terrorism has made things even worse on the Tohono O'odham reservation, the second-largest in the U.S., behind the Navajo.

Rugged lands

The Tohono O'odham's 2.8million-acre lands are larger than Connecticut. They stretch across more than 70 miles of Arizona's southern border, dotted with prickly cactus, willowy ocotillo and spiny yucca plants. The area was transferred from Mexico to the U.S. after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.

This rugged land increasingly is targeted by drug dealers and illegal-immigrant smugglers seeking to evade heightened security at official ports of entry in Arizona and other border states. Some of the impoverished Indians bring in extra money by cooperating, tribal leaders admit.

With increased border scrutiny, every passage at gates in the fence dividing the U.S. from Mexico, traditional crossing points for the Tohono O'odham, brings the risk of confrontation. The Border Patrol's questioning is more intense, the demand for documents more pressing.

"I've stopped crossing," said Henry Jose, 78, a veteran of World War II. He served as a machine gunner on the USS Mississippi under Capt. Jimmy Carter, who later became president. "I'm not going to stand there and have them ask me everything, have them search me and undress me."

Jose lives in the adobe house he and his father built in 1937, down a long dirt road 5 miles from the border. It has no electricity or telephone.

Like his six brothers and sisters, Jose was born at home. There were no written records and no calendar. Only because an uncle made a mark in a little notebook does he know the day he was born.

Jose has no birth or baptismal certificate proving he was born in the U.S. About 7,000 members of the Tohono O'odham are in a similar situation, according to tribal general counsel Margo Cowan: They were born in this country but lack the documents needed to prove it under recent immigration laws.

When Jose was a boy, he and his family would go to wells on the Mexican side for water. Their horses and cattle pastured in Mexico and the U.S. "We didn't have any fences, we didn't think of the border," he said. "It was all Tohono O'odham land."

After the war, Jose returned home to work in construction and at nearby copper mines. He gets military benefits of $750 a month but all efforts to secure Social Security payments have been frustrated.

"Every time I go up there to ask, they tell me you need your birth certificate and this and that," Jose said, referring to his interactions with government officials.

Citizenship legislation

In the bill before Congress, the Indian nation is asking the government to accept Tohono O'odham tribal enrollment cards as proof of U.S. citizenship. Membership in the tribe is overseen by a 22- person council and must be approved by the secretary of the interior.

There is some precedent for what they want. In 1983, Congress passed a special law offering the Kickapoo Indians of Texas and northern Mexico rights to U.S. citizenship.

The U.S. government has been working with the Tohono O'odham for a long time to resolve some of the nation's problems, said Warren McBroom, associate general counsel with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington.

After learning that Mexican members were having trouble getting border crossing cards because they couldn't prove Mexican citizenship, the INS provided laser visas to more than 1,000 tribal members in the past two years.

Chief patrol agent Clyde Benzenhoefer of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson section said all new agents are trained in issues affecting Indians. "The Tohono O'odham are in a very unique situation. We don't just pack 'em up and haul 'em in. If we talk to someone and they have a reasonable story, we let them go."

Anyone crossing between official border ports of entry is subject to search; the Indians are not singled out, he said.

Still, many tribal members see the stops as humiliating and feel they are being treated as strangers on their own land.

"They treat us as if we are criminals," said George Ignacio, 78, who was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States since the 1930s. "I detest what the foreigners did to us when they divided our lands."

Ignacio's father was the first tribal member elected chairman of the Tohono O'odham in 1937. He was born in Mexico and never became a U.S. citizen.

[Illustration]
PHOTO; Caption: PHOTO: George Ignacio holds a photo of his father, the first member of the Tohono O'odham to be elected chairman of the tribe in 1937. "They treat us as if we are criminals," George Ignacio said. Arizona Daily Star photo by Jeffry Scott.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Subjects:  
Locations:  Mexico,  Arizona
Article types:  News
Dateline:  SELLS, Ariz.
Section:  News
ISSN/ISBN:  10856706
Text Word Count  1053