Tribe Strad­dling Bor­der Seethes at Plan for Wall

The To­hono O’odham mea­sure their his­tory against se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Paper Boy - - Front Page - By FER­NANDA SAN­TOS

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

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY NICK COTE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Pres­i­dent Donald J. Trump’s pro­posed bor­der wall would cleave through the To­hono O’odham Nation’s reser­va­tion in Ari­zona.

Richard Saunders, the di­rec­tor of pub­lic safety on the reser­va­tion, pick­ing up shoes mi­grants use to ob­scure foot­prints in the desert ter­rain.

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