August 18, 2006

Indian nation divided over border fence

By Tim Gaynor

ALI JEGK, Arizona (Reuters) - Members of a traditional
Indian nation spanning the Arizona-Mexico border are divided
over plans to erect a fence to stop drug and human traffickers
driving over the desert from Mexico.

The U.S. Border Patrol is to start building a 75-mile
(120-km) vehicle barrier across the Tohono O'odham nation lands
abutting Mexico's Sonora state as early as next month, as part
of a move to gain greater control over the porous border

Tribal authorities back the barrier, made of closely set
steel posts sunk in concrete. They hope it will stop cars and
trucks packed with marijuana and undocumented immigrants
streaming into their lands each night from Mexico.

But some traditionalists in the nation, whose name means
"People of the Desert," call the barrier an affront to beliefs
centered on the natural world, and fear it heralds other
get-tough measures that may weaken ties to members in Mexico.

"It's like somebody put a knife in your mother. The barrier
will be continually there, and you can't pull it out," said
activist Ofelia Rivas, who organizes the "O'odham Voice Against
the Wall" pressure group.

The nation of 25,000 members reaches up to Casa Grande in
the north, a few miles south of the state capital, Phoenix, and
stretches across the international line into Mexico, where some
members live in nine scattered communities.

They frequently use informal crossing points -- sometimes
little more than gaps in the rusty barbed-wire border fence --
to visit relatives on either side and attend traditional
religious ceremonies marking the seasonal calendar.

"Our children and their children are never going to
understand what it used to be without a border there," Rivas
said in a tiny hamlet of cinderblock and adobe homes on the
parched borderline.

"From this point on, it's never, ever going to change."


Tribal authorities say the barrier is necessary to stop the
smugglers, who frequently duel with the Border Patrol in
high-speed chases on back roads, and dump tons of trash
including clothing and water bottles on the tribe's land.

Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders said plans for building the
barrier were drawn up in consultation with the nation's
government and would not affect tribal traditions.

"It will not prevent members from crossing the border on
foot, and will include three gates to allow them to continue to
cross with vehicles," she said in a telephone interview.

The Border Patrol is also adamant that there are no plans
to build further barriers that would prevent people crossing on
foot through the tribe's harsh, cactus-studded lands, or to
require members to obtain passports to do so.

At present tribal identity papers are sufficient to cross
the international line informally.

But some traditional Tohono O'odham fear that could change
with a drift toward tightening security along the 2,000-mile
(3,200-km) border that is gathering pace in Washington.

The U.S. Senate voted in May to build 370 miles of
triple-layered fencing against illegal incursions, while the
U.S. House of Representatives in December went further,
authorizing 700 miles of the barriers.

"Many people have no birth certificates as they were born
at home," elder Margaret Garcia, 68, said as she sat just yards
from the dusty international line she first rolled over in a
horse and cart to attend ceremonies in Mexico as a girl.

"If we are ever required to get passports, it would be very
difficult for us."