Tribes Are Caught on the Border


Beads of sweat betray Betty Antone’s anxiety as she noses the Chevrolet Suburban through a gap in the cow fence that separates the United States and Mexico in this lonesome desert corner.

The trip, once routine for the 23,000 Tohono O’odham Indians whose lands are split in half by the international divide, is suddenly fraught with legal risk.

“I feel like a smuggler, but I have to do it,” says Antone, who shuttles ailing tribal members to the reservation hospital on the U.S. side.

Antone has reason to feel jittery--she is, after all, breaking U.S. law. One of her passengers, an 80-year-old man with tuberculosis who’s been coughing blood for a month, lacks documents to legally cross the border. And entry anywhere but an official checkpoint also is a violation of U.S. law.


A recent jump in illegal immigration and drug smuggling through this prickly landscape of mesquite and bent-armed saguaro cactus southwest of Tucson has drawn heightened enforcement and dramatically altered life along the 70 miles of border abutting the reservation.

Some of the 1,300 tribal members in Mexico no longer venture north to visit relatives or the reservation’s 34-bed clinic; others have been arrested and deported. Counterparts on the U.S. side, many born in Mexico or lacking U.S. citizenship papers, have been forced to stop taking part in religious pilgrimages and other ceremonies in the Mexican border state of Sonora.

Other tribes straddling the U.S.-Mexican border in California and Arizona are also concerned that tighter immigration controls could cleave their ranks forever. Two indigenous groups in Texas with cross-border ties are seeking U.S. citizenship rights.

In related efforts, members of the Tohono O’odham and San Diego’s Kumeyaay Indians have joined U.S. and Mexican officials in testing a novel program to provide Mexican passports and U.S. border-crossing cards to Mexican members who typically lack so much as a birth certificate. As a key step, the San Diego tribe is conducting a census in seven indigenous communities in Baja California. Kumeyaay leaders would like Mexican Kumeyaay eventually to be able to work freely on the U.S. side as language teachers or to sell handmade baskets and pots at U.S. Indian casinos.


Tohono O’odham leaders propose a more daring answer: changing U.S. nationality law to grant citizenship to enrolled tribal members in Mexico and to treat tribal identification cards as proof. The proposal reflects a growing desire to fix what leaders consider a historical oversight--that the group was not taken into account in 1853 when Mexico sold to the United States a huge chunk of the Southwest that included land the Tohono O’odham had inhabited for centuries. Likewise, tribal officials said no arrangements for passage were made in the 1930s, when the tribe was recognized by the United States.

Unlike its border with Canada, where the United States permits indigenous Canadians free passage, no sweeping arrangements exist for groups along the Mexican border. The Tohono O’odham, which means “desert people,” still consider themselves a single tribe. The idea that they should now have documents to move about their traditional lands strikes some, especially older members, as baffling.

“It’s not our fault there is this division,” said Alicia Chuhuhua, a Tohono O’odham leader in Pozo Prieto, a Mexican village about 75 miles south of the Arizona border. “They never asked us. It’s not our fault that Mexico sold it and the United States bought.”

For long after the land transfer, the Tohono O’odham, formerly known as Papago, paid little attention to the border--marked by white obelisks in the desert shrubs that cut the traditional lands roughly in half, each side about the size of Connecticut. The only barrier is a flimsy cattle fence that went up in the 1930s to prevent diseased livestock from wandering into the United States.

The O’odham Nation is the sole U.S.-recognized tribe that enrolls Mexican members, many of whom belong for tribal voting purposes to the 11 Tohono O’odham districts in the United States. Discussions at public meetings shift from the Tohono O’odham language to English, then to Spanish and back again without translation.

Tribal members from both sides have traditionally gathered each year, some on foot, for religious pilgrimages in Mexico. On the U.S. side, a cave atop 7,700-foot Baboquivari Peak is considered home to I’itoi, the most important Tohono O’odham deity, and is a sacred prayer spot for those in crisis or seeking forgiveness.

Family ties stretch from sun-faded stucco homes on the U.S. reservation to adobe shanties in Mexico, where there are about a dozen indigenous communities but no official reservation. Some Mexican members have commuted over dirt roads through three unofficial crossings to jobs in Sells, 30 miles north of the border.

In the past, undocumented immigrants from Mexico’s interior were scarce, as were U.S. Border Patrol agents. Tribal members stopped at the border often were waved along merely by flashing a tribal ID card.


That informality has given way to a charged air that the tribe’s vice chairman, Henry Ramon, compares to a “war zone.”

As streams of illegal immigrants seek to cross, Border Patrol helicopters fly above, helping agents on the ground chase groups dropped off from cattle trucks at the fence to head north. Discarded clothes and scores of spent water jugs mark pickup spots favored by smugglers. Sneaker prints wend around stands of ocotillo.

In March, a reservation high school became a makeshift emergency shelter after 330 migrants were rescued from a snowstorm.

The agency has no consistent policy toward the Tohono O’odham. “Our people get caught in the middle,” Ramon said. “It’s a real problem. And it’s getting worse.”

A tribal attorney said that at least 50 Tohono O’odham members crossing from Mexico have been arrested in the past year or so by U.S. authorities. Others have been searched and released. The Border Patrol says it has caught some tribal members harboring illegal entrants and stashing drugs but says it’s not a widespread problem.

At the closest official ports of entry on either side of the reservation--90 and 105 miles away--Mexican tribal members have run into trouble or been turned back because they lacked proper documents.

Faustino Romero Zepeda, a 34-year-old Tohono O’odham born in Mexico, was deported from the port of entry at Lukeville last June after he tried to return to his U.S. home from tribal business in Mexico. The INS contends that Romero falsely declared himself a U.S. citizen. Romero, who as a result was barred from entering the United States for five years, returned nonetheless on foot to the U.S. reservation, where he works as a ranch hand.

The tribe has applied for a visa on his behalf, but tribal officials say Romero probably deserves U.S. citizenship. His grandmother’s birth in Arizona was never registered, thereby denying U.S. citizenship to Romero’s mother and, ultimately, to him.


The paucity of paperwork is central to the difficulties of the Tohono O’odham, Kumeyaay and other border tribes. Many older members were born at home and never received birth certificates--the most basic requirement for establishing citizenship. And finding people to attest to a birth decades later can be nearly impossible.

The result is that thousands of Indians born in Mexico cannot get a Mexican passport needed to receive a so-called laser visa to enter the United States at official checkpoints. And many Mexican Indians live an isolated farming existence that produces none of the documents, such as pay stubs, bank statements and rent receipts, typically required by U.S. officials to ensure that a visitor has no intention of staying. Their attempts to enter lawfully become an exercise in futility.

“They told us they would go to the [U.S.] consulate in Tijuana and be denied. They’d shrug their shoulders and go home. That was not acceptable,” said Warren McBroom, a lawyer for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., and expert on cross-border indigenous groups.

Mexican Indians have entered under special waivers, issued case by case, for hospital visits, funerals, family emergencies or cultural ceremonies. But waivers require the tribe, U.S. immigration officials and U.S. consular staffers in Mexico to fax names back and forth. It is time-consuming and vulnerable to mix-ups.

U.S. officials hail the pilot program, which forgoes some of the usual documents and accepts tribal declarations in place of others, as an imaginative response to the problems of indigenous groups along the Southwest border.

“It’s no fun for us, either, to have someone standing in front of you with no documentation and needing to go to a medical facility,” said Roseanne Sonchik, director of the INS Phoenix district.

In Baja California, members of San Diego’s Kumeyaay tribe are going door to door in remote indigenous communities to compile a census for verifying the status of people seeking travel papers. The questionnaire asks names and tribal affiliation of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Northern Baja is home to four indigenous groups.

On a recent day, Jamul resident Veronica Thing and an aunt from Ensenada stopped in at several homes in San Antonio Necua, 30 houses tucked an hour’s drive outside Ensenada. Thing made introductions and the aunt, Cruz Salgado, gently asked the questions. Herminia Dominguez Crosthwaite, reluctantly agreed to answer. Swiping a weathered wooden cane back and forth in the dust at her feet, she explained in Spanish that she has no birth certificate. She was hesitant on her age--79 or 80, she decided--and struggled to come up with the name of her birthplace, a community nearby.

Dominguez once spent an hour north of the border from Tecate--courtesy of a kind immigration inspector--but has no plans to return. She questioned how long it would take to process a passport and visa. “Before I die?” she asked.

Just how far the U.S. government will go to assist tribes’ binational ties is a big question mark at a time when tighter borders are a national priority.

A previous proposal to allow Mexican Tohono O’odham to cross freely went nowhere in the U.S. Congress two years ago, but such a move would not be entirely without precedent. The Kickapoo tribe in Texas won U.S. citizenship and crossing rights for its Mexican members in the 1980s. That group and a separate Kickapoo tribe are seeking to reopen the offer of citizenship for their members who live on the U.S. side but migrate each winter to Mexico for traditional religious observances.

Tohono O’odham leaders insist that their situation is more dire, saying it is critical, especially for them to maintain medical services for Mexican members who live far from any Mexican hospitals. All enrolled tribal members are entitled to the basic services provided at the reservation’s clinic, which is overseen by the U.S. government. The O’odham Nation has long been poor and unhealthy, with an average annual income of $8,347 and the world’s highest diabetes rate. But $52 million in profits last year from a pair of Arizona casinos and the prospects of a third, just under construction, have buoyed hopes for improving services.

As the tribe confronts the broad outside forces, some fear the tranquil atmosphere of the desert region may be gone for good. Travelers on the Mexican side often encounter Mexican soldiers looking for drug traffickers. Tribal officials complain about environmental harm caused by Border Patrol operations. The vendors, now lonely, grouse that sparse sales at the border fence are a sign of the new tension.

“We’ll never go back to the wonderful, free, safe, traditional lives we used to enjoy,” said tribal education director Rosilda Lopez-Manuel, who discourages her husband from camping on remote reservation lands because she fears drug smugglers and groups of illegal immigrants. “It’s a big loss. My childhood memories--thank God I have the memories.”


Border Woes for Tribe

Tightened enforcement on the U.S. side of the international border has complicated life for the 23,000 members of the Tohono O’odham tribe who once freely crossed traditional lands into Arizona. Members of San Diego’s Kumeyaay tribe are seeking to ease crossings for counterparts living in villages, such as San Antonio Necua, in Baja California.