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The Native American tribe Tohono o’odham in Arizona has a significant stake in the ongoing conflict in Congress about whether to fund President Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall. The tribe’s reservation, about the size of Connecticut, spans both countries, and a border wall would run through their land. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
The Arizona desert is a breathtaking, albeit unforgiving environment. The state shares nearly 400 miles of border with mexico and much of the area is inhabited by an ancient, and little-known native american tribe.
As the national battle over a border wall continues, if plans for a wall do get approved, it will have to get through the tohono o'odham nation, and their land. It's an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut that includes more than 60 miles of the U.S. – Mexico border. Verlon Jose is the Vice Chairman of the Tohono O'odham nation.
To put a border wall here it would be detrimental to our people. It would have a psychological effect. You would have an emotional effect. I think you wouldn't like it if I dug a wall right through your home. This is our traditional homelands.
Like most Native American tribes, the Tohono O'odham are U.S. citizens with a self-governed reservation. But unlike most tribes, it has members living in both the US and Mexico. According to tribal administration, roughly 32,000 live in the US, and 2,000 live in Mexico.
We've never crossed the border; the border crossed us. We see just another obstacle in our path in life to go visit family, to go visit friends, to go to sacred sites in Mexico. We feel betrayed back for 160 years when this international boundary was created, without any consent or any discussion.
He's referring to the gadsden purchase of 1854, and an agreement between the us and mexico over where to draw the border: right through tohono o'odham land.
You have to understand the history of indigenous people in this country.
April Ignacio is a single mother of five who lives on the U.S. side. She says the wall would interrupt the free-flow of wildlife, as well as disrupt sacred native rituals celebrating their communion with the land. Ignacio also points out that her tribe already compromised when the us government built a fence on their land. And she says that's more than enough.
You've taken the land. You've taken the majority of the water and our resources and the minerals. What more do, what more do Indian tribes have to compromise?
Unlike their ancestors, the tohono o'odham of today can no longer cross the border wherever they please – they have to go through specific entry points.
The Tohono O'odham are the only people who can cross through gates such as these on the Mexico-U.S. border, but some border patrol say that members of the Tohono O'odham nation are abusing that privilege and making big money for the Mexican drug cartels in the process
Art del Cueto:
I've been working out here for a long time. And we've arrested a lot of individuals on the reservation that have been involved in smuggling
Art del Cueto is the Vice President of the National Border Patrol Union, and an agent himself, patrolling Tohono O'odham land. Del cueto says some tribal members have been convicted for running drugs. It's a lucrative business, made even more attractive because of the high rates of unemployment and poverty on the reservation.
Del cueto says tribal leadership could do more to help stop the smuggling.
I don't think they're doing enough. I think they're obviously aware that there's people that live on the nation that smuggle drugs.
Some illegal drug traffic occurs in places like this, outside official border ports of entry. The tucson area, which includes the Tohono O'odham nation, accounts for nearly 60 percent of that kind of drug traffic.
But to be clear, that's not where most illegal drugs are confiscated.
A recent drug enforcement agency report said most drugs are found in vehicles attempting to drive through official us ports of entry. However, many people we spoke with, including april ignacio, think focusing on how drugs enter this country is not addressing the real problem.
I live on the Nation and we are put in the middle of the United States thirst for drugs. Building a wall will not stop drugs from coming. The only thing that's going to stop drugs from coming across is dealing with the drug epidemic here in the country.
We drove hundreds of miles along the border during our visit, and the physical barriers varied depending on where we were….
Some parts look like this … Others sections, look like this …
And in some cases, no barrier at all. Del cueto took us to a section of the border where the existing barricade abruptly ends. He says this makes his job – securing the international border between the us and mexico – nearly impossible.
When you look down here, and you see these types of gaps, and this area where the wall just ends, but the country doesn't end. We need some type of security.
A lack of barrier can be due to topography, when a natural boundary like this mountain peak has been deemed sufficient, but a lack of border funding is also to blame, according to del cueto.
And we're extremely grateful to President Trump and we fully support what we are doing to take care of our nation's borders to take care of the future of this United States.
He's an outspoken advocate of the border wall, here he is speaking beside President Trump at the White House. Del Cueto, an American citizen born in Mexico, came to the U.S. legally when he was four years old. Like the rest of his border patrol colleagues, Del Cueto isn't getting a paycheck because of the government shutdown. However, he says he's willing to work without pay if it will help get the wall built.
They want to blame President Trump for the shutdown. We don't see it that way. We see it as we want border security. That's all we're asking.
We drove to the far northern end of the tohono o'odham territory, some 100 miles from mexico. It borders on pinal county, arizona, where lieutenant Chris Lapre heads the anti-smuggling unit at the sheriff's office.
As a state officer, he has limited jurisdiction south of here on tribal land. He says this mile marker, number 158 off of interstate 8, is a known drop-off point just outside tribal land – where traffickers from Mexico hand off drugs to be distributed in the U.S. When we arrive, lapre spots water bottles and what are known as 'sneaky feet' – carpet-soled shoes that don't leave footprints.
So this tells me that these are, these guys might have been packing dope because the blankets are all the same. So usually with immigrants that come across, you get personal items, clothing that's individual or unique to the individual. And here we have a group of stuff that's
It's all uniform, as if it were a standard issue. That's really interesting.
The backpacks are all the same.
So you and your department, you're really the last line of defense.
So brazen are the Mexican drug cartels, Lapre says they even have their own religious shrine, right here in arizona.
Have you ever seen this lit up?
Yes, I have. Quite a few times. It's either lit or not. Depending on which one is – going on is depending if the smugglers know we're in the area or if we're not in the area.
So they're sending a signal. This is a lighthouse effectively.
Why don't you take it down?
Well number one it's on the reservation. So we're actually, we would be considered trespassing and it's actually a crime because it's reservation land. Number two, certain things that it represents allows us law enforcement intelligence.
So it's useful to you in a way.
Lapre says a wall would help control the tribal area he has little jurisdiction over. It's an opinion shared by trump supporters who live near the border – like Jim Boaz.
It's time to do something and get serious about it. Friends of mine that live along that border, ranchers, that have had the illegal problem for years.
According to Customs and Border protection, the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border has actually been dropping for years. It's gone from 1.6 million people in early 2000s, to roughly 300,000 in 2017. Even so, everyone we spoke to agrees the border needs to be controlled, some just think there are better ways than building a wall.
Asst to Police Chief Irby: If you go to the expense to build something fixed, that's that permanent, they're innovative, they'll find a way around it. Either under it, or over it. So, that's not the answer.
Rodney Irby is the assistant chief of police in the tohono o'odham nation. There should be a concentrated effort on addressing any threats that a border might pose, but I think it needs to be a reasonable and modern approach to it. Maybe a 21st century approach.
Asst to Police Chief Irby: Irby points to technology like sensors and surveillance towers as better alternatives to a wall.
Asst to Police Chief Irby: There is technology, there's plans on the nation for technology, integrated fixed towers, and those have proven effective, because they will detect ultralight aircraft, if they were to fly over the border.
Even without a wall, there's already palpable tension between border patrol and the Tohono O'odham people.
Francisco Valenzuela Sr:
I would compare the Border Patrol to the gestapo.
Francisco Valenzuela. is a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe and a rancher. He says he's been harassed repeatedly by border patrol agents.
Every time I come down here I experience something.
Well, literally being stopped and being searched. Point the guns at you. Put your hands up.
So you've had guns drawn at you?
Oh yeah, definitely.
Tribe members say harassment from border patrol agents is routine. April Ignacio recounts her experience.
You know, living in the United States and having to go through checkpoints or wondering if this Border Patrol agent who's pulling you over is going to cut you out of your seatbelt or if you're going to be okay. It's a type of psychological emotional trauma that we're dealing with that no one's talking about.
What everyone is talking about is the political standoff over a border wall. But for Verlon Jose and his tribe, it's more than just political.
It makes me feel that someone will grab a knife and cut across my heart. It is my responsibility to protect this and make sure that a wall is not built on the Tohono O'odham Nation.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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