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How the US-Mexico border brought trouble to the Tohono O’odham Nation


By Caitlin Stephen Hu, David Culver, Norma Galeana and Evelio Contreras, CNN

San Miguel Gate, Tohono O’odham Nation (CNN) — The thermometer hit 111 Fahrenheit as we rolled up to a battered tent deep in the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation in Arizona. Under its shade lay around a dozen dazed looking families, many with small children. A stressed-looking mother of two paced back and forth.

They had walked for five hours to get here, and had been waiting all day. But they looked at us – and the tribal dignitaries on whose land they were trespassing – with only mild curiosity. They were asylum seekers, looking for the green uniforms of US Border Patrol so that they could turn themselves in.

Chairman Verlon Jose, leader of the Tohono O’odham Nation, considered addressing them, and then turned away. “This is nothing that the nation can solve,” he said. “Whatever I say to them is not even going to be relevant, other than our prayers for their journey.”

The Tohono O’odham, or “people of the desert,” have lived in the Sonoran desert for thousands of years, their ancestral homelands stretching from what is now Pima County, Arizona, all the way to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

The US-Mexico border now slices across those lands, a 62-mile line of low metal fencing weaves between ancient saguaro cacti and that marks the southern limit of the Nation’s federal Indian reservation – and the edge of the United States.

The Tohono O’odham do not recognize this border; enrolled members speak their own language, live on both sides and travel back and forth. But it has become impossible to ignore amid record numbers of migrants crossing into the US from Mexico and a bitter political storm over what to do with them.

You could drive for miles on the sprawling Tohono O’odham reservation without encountering anyone beside the free-ranging cattle. But for decades, migrants and asylum seekers, northbound drug smugglers and southbound arms traffickers, and US Border Patrol agents have roamed here in endless pursuit across the rocky terrain.

The toll of all this traffic on the environment is obvious; discarded clothes, trash, diapers and even ID cards line the border.

In December, during the peak of recent border crossings, thousands of asylum seekers camped out on the Nation’s territory, burning the reservation’s wild mesquite trees for warmth as they waited to be apprehended. The sight of the broken branches, piles of abandoned plastic bottles and human waste left in the migrants’ wake was heartbreaking to the tribe, Jose told CNN.

“Your heart feels for the migrants and so forth like that… but then other part says look at the destruction that they’re causing us… look at the trash that they’re leaving,” Jose told CNN.

The chairman and Arizona governor Katie Hobbs wrote in a joint letter to the federal government last year requesting ramped up staffing and resources from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to deal with the surge. But the Nation’s longstanding reliance on the federal government to enforce the border means an uneasy trade of tribal sovereignty for security. Border police have had violent run-ins with members, and the thought of a potential border wall is seen as a travesty here – a mutilation of the land itself.

“All we want is safe passage to our traditional homes, to our sacred areas. The drug activity, the migrant activity is going to go on and go on. And we’re caught in the middle of this,” Jose said.

Strangers in the desert

The Tohono O’odham reservation is part of Arizona’s Tucson sector and one of the busiest immigration sectors in the country in both apprehensions of border crossers and marijuana seizures, according to the Customs and Border Protection website.

Across the sprawling reservation, the tribe works closely with CBP, providing land for checkpoints, forward operating bases, surveillance infrastructure, and putting forward indigenous-led special units that investigate and track drug smuggling. The Nation says that it spends an average of $3 million annually to assist with border security.

Still, strangers walk onto the reservation all the time.

In the small southern community of Menagers Dam, just a 15 minute walk from the border, people turn up asking for water or a phone, others march straight into homes to raid their kitchens, said Annette Mattia, 61, who lives in the village. Some Tohono O’odham Nation members put out water or food for the migrants, others are afraid to. Some members have been involved in smuggling themselves, she says.

“We’re always calling (Border Patrol) because where we live is a bushy area with the trees still there and everything. And that was like the gateway for smugglers. You can just go walk in our yard and in the little trees, and you’ll find the slipper shoes the smugglers use, or their camouflage clothes,” she says.

Still, seeing Border Patrol’s trucks and helicopters on the reservation and frequent questioning by agents also makes many of the Nation’s residents bristle.

“If you decide to go out into the mountains for the day, if you want to pick the cactus fruit or get materials from the desert, Border Patrol will be out there, and they will be on you: ‘What are you doing here, why are you out here?’,” Annette Mattia told CNN.

“You know, this is our reservation. It’s our nation. We can go hunting if we want to go hunting, we can gather if we want to gather,” she said. “They’re here because the border’s here.”

A deadly landscape

Sprawling across 2.8 million acres, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in this desert reservation. Massive rock formations are the only landmarks, rising between low plains dotted with dry shrubs and cactus forests.

Many migrants who cross here never make it out alive; the remains of at least 1,650 people have been found across the Tohono O’odham reservation since 2000, according to local organization Humane Borders, which works with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office to track deaths.

Last year, the bodies of 81 people were found on the reservation, according to Humane Borders. So far in 2024, 10 bodies have been found here, according to the Humane Borders map, all discovered on the San Miguel corridor – the same route where we met dozens of people waiting with children as young as toddlers.

Most, but not all, are reduced to skeletons in the arid desert. In May, one unidentified man found close to the border was found “fully fleshed” – he had died from heat exposure within a day of being found, according to the county medical examiner’s report. In February, the body of a 22-year-old woman was found on the Baboquivari Peak mountain range; she was the victim of blunt force injuries, the medical examiner assessed.

Summer is the deadliest time for border crossings. But while migration through the Sonoran Desert has historically slowed during these searing months, that’s no longer the case today, a CBP spokesperson told CNN; human traffickers who’ve made a business of promising asylum in America now push migrants through the border year-round in order to maximize profits.

Demand for traffickers is high, despite the risks – which migrants may not always understand. Since the pandemic, people fleeing stuttering economies, climate change, crime and authoritarian governments have flocked to the US southern border, a CBP spokesperson told CNN – nearly all those journeys were facilitated by criminal groups.

“No one crosses on their own anymore,” the spokesperson told CNN. Cartels’ grip on the border area is near-complete, he confirmed; attempting to cross the Mexican side of the desert into the US without paying is another way to end up dead.

Migrants sent one way, drugs another

Today, faced with vast numbers of asylum seekers in a blistering landscape, the day-to-day work of Border Patrol often ends up being humanitarian. In the Tucson Sector, Border Patrol agents perform dozens of rescues each week, according to statistics posted online by the agency, and frequently end up treating dehydrated or injured migrants in the desert.

Even more often, agents simply ferry families from the desolate border where asylum seekers politely wait to be apprehended, to detention centers further inland – a task that one agent likened with annoyance to babysitting or Uber driving.

Some describe with nostalgia a Wild West version of their jobs from decades past, chasing drug runners across a dramatic landscape.

“Back in the day when it was just single males with a lot of narcotics, it was dangerous but kind of exciting,” said the agent, who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak publicly.

“Secure the border. We didn’t have to babysit. We were up in the mountains getting narcotics and stuff, chasing gun traffickers, drugs. But now it’s moms and infants. It sucks. Nobody wants to deal with a mama and baby.”

Border Patrol agents and Nation members say migrants, on whom so much national attention is focused, are often used as a distraction for law enforcement on the reservation. Cartels funnel large groups toward remote areas that are difficult and time-consuming to reach, in addition to being more dangerous for the travelers, while smugglers trek with drug-loaded backpacks up another route.

“The cartels want migrants to cross in rural areas to pull us away, so drugs and stuff can make it through while we’re busy… You’ve got to drive the freaking 30 or 40 minutes out there, pick them up, drive 30 or 40 minutes back. You ain’t got time to go chase three or four people with backpacks walking through the desert,” the agent told CNN.

Urban crossing areas are also often more closely patrolled than the desert wilds and are more likely to be blocked by a towering steel barrier, unlike these lands.

Mike Wilson, a Tohono O’odham Nation member who has gained celebrity in human rights circles for years spent putting out water for migrants on the reservation, says many of the deaths on the reservation were predictable.

In a recently published memoir, “What Side Are You On?” Wilson blames a US border policy of deterrence – blocking irregular migration at urban crossing points – for driving asylum seekers into Tohono O’odham lands and the most perilous parts of the desert.

The strategy, which originated in the 1990s, included a calculation that deaths resulting from the dangerous trek would deter future migrants. The number of illegal border crossings has risen since then.

Security vs. sovereignty

Frustrations over the border here came to a head last year, when Annette’s brother Raymond Mattia was shot and killed by a group of Border Patrol agents at his home. Nothing to do with immigration – they were supposed to be backing up a local Tohono O’odham police unit that was looking into a 911 call reporting two gunshots had been heard.

Footage from the agents’ body cameras showed their flashlights casting through the dark of the Arizona desert, choppily illuminating saguaro cacti and low shrubs in the neighborhood in search of movement in the area, before noticing the unarmed 58-year-old  standing in his front yard. Obeying agents’ orders, he removed his hand from his pocket, withdrawing a cell phone. They began firing immediately.

“I thought they were yelling and shouting at illegals,” she recalled, describing their attitude as a “hyped up and ready to hunt.” “They had flashlights going like crazy, shouting, yelling at each other, and I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Then I realized they were going to Ray’s house.”

It is unclear if Raymond Mattia was the person they were looking for; authorities made no allegations following the incident.

The US Attorney’s Office in Arizona has chosen not to press charges over the killing, prompting the Mattia family to launch a wrongful death lawsuit. But holding border agents to account has been increasingly hard to do following a 2022 Supreme Court ruling that gave federal agents broad legal protection against claims of excessive force.

“I know they’re here to protect the border: for the terrorists, the immigrants, the smugglers. But when they’re coming to the reservation to shoot a Native American person who is at home, they should be accountable for that kind of action,” Annette Mattia said.

In a statement last year criticizing the US Attorney’s decision not to prosecute, Jose linked Mattia’s death to a larger failing of border management.

“The US government’s refusal to enact sensible border solutions has brought undue hardship to O’odham and other border communities,” he wrote. “While politicians waste time debating walls and other ineffective and divisive ideas, our people are persecuted and in this case, killed by federal agents.”

The chairman sees the federal approach toward the border as all too focused on maintaining an imaginary line and scoring political points, and expressed frustration with the failure of Congress to find a bigger-picture, bipartisan solution – something that in recent weeks has led the Biden administration to rely on executive orders instead.

“Why would we want to protect a border? We want to protect the environment. We want to protect the people. We want to protect the communities around here,” Jose said. That’s his mandate from Nation elders, he said.

What the US should do, he said, is focus on “kicking its drug habit” to shrink demand for smuggled narcotics, and widen sustainable immigration pathways for economic migrants that allow them to come, work and eventually leave.

Still, as long as migrants keep coming here, so will Border Patrol – and the tribal government has been clear that it wants the federal agency to handle the immediate crisis. New buildings designed to serve as sleeping and living quarters for Border Patrol agents are currently being built on the reservation.

Standing on the border halfway up a mountain, where the low posts that mark the border stop, and the rocks and dry shrubs flow seamlessly between the US and Mexico, Jose was clear on his own red line: While much is out of the Nation’s hands, he will resist any kind of border wall – a prospect that has haunted the nation since the Trump administration, and which looms again with the former President’s reelection bid.

From his view, the very first migrant surge started at Plymouth Rock. “If ever there was a time to build a wall,” he said, “it would have been 500 years ago.”

Edited by CNN’s Rachel Clarke in Atlanta.

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Article Topic Follows: On the Border

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