Tribe Straddling Border Seethes at Plan for Wall
The Tohono O’odham measure their history against security concerns.
SAN MIGUEL, Arizona — The phone calls started almost as soon as President Donald J. Trump signed his executive order, making official his pledge to build a wall to separate the United States from Mexico.
Verlon M. Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose reservation extends along 100 kilometers of the border, heard from people he knew and those he had never heard of. All of them were outraged and offered to throw their bodies in the way of construction that would separate the tribe’s people on the north side of the border and the south side, where they live within the group’s ancestral lands. “If someone came into your house and built a wall in your living room, tell me, how would you feel about that?” Mr. Jose asked.
Mr. Trump’s plan to build a 3,145-kilometer wall from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico will have to overcome the fury of political opponents and numerous obstacles.
The Tohono O’odham is a tribe that has survived the cleaving of its land for more than 150 years and views the wall as a final indignity. A wall would threaten an ancestral connection that has endured even as barriers, gates, cameras and United States Border Patrol agents have become a part of the landscape.
“Our roots are here,” Richard Saunders said, standing by a border gate in San Miguel, which he and his wife pass through — when it is open — to visit her grandparents’ graves, 500 meters into Mexico. “Our roots are there, too, on the south side of this gate.”
The Tohono O’odham and their predecessors were nomads in the region for thousands of years. After the Mexican-american War and then the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 delineated the border for good, most of the tribe’s land was left in present- day Arizona, where it still controls 1.1 million hectares, while a smaller piece became part of the Mexican state of Sonora. The tribe has 34,000 enrolled members. Half live on the reservation in Arizona, 2,000 are in Mexico and the rest left for places where job prospects were better.
The Tohono O’odham reservation has been a popular crossing point for unauthorized migrants and one of the busiest drug-smuggling corridors along the border, in part because the United States strengthened security at other spots. While a six-meter-tall steel fence lines the border in San Luis, to the west, and Nogales, to the east, here the border is a lot more permeable.
Tohono O’odham leaders acknowledged that they were straddling a bona fide national security concern. The tribe reluctantly complied when the federal government moved to replace an old barbedwire fence with barriers that were designed to stop vehicles. It ceded two hectares so the Border Patrol could build a base with dormitories for its agents and space to temporarily detain migrants.
Hardly a day goes by without a resident calling in a smuggler spotted going by or a migrant in distress, said Mr. Saunders, the director of public safety. The tribe treats sick migrants and paid $2,500 on