TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION, Ariz., Sept. 14 — The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on legislation to build a double-layered 700-mile-long fence on the Mexican border, a proposal already approved by the House.
If the fence is built, however, it could have a long gap — about 75 miles — at one of the border’s most vulnerable points because of opposition from the Indian tribe here. The Tohono O’odham Nation straddles the Mexico border.
More illegal immigrants are caught — and die trying to cross into the United States — in and around the Tohono O’odham Indian territory, which straddles the Arizona border, than any other spot in the state.
Tribal leaders have cooperated with Border Patrol enforcement, but they promised to fight the building of a fence out of environmental and cultural concerns.
For the Tohono O’odham, which means “desert people,” the reason is fairly simple. For generations, their people and the wildlife they revere have freely crossed the border. For years, an existing four-foot-high cattle fence has had several openings — essentially cattle gates — that tribal members use to visit relatives and friends, take children to school and perform rites on the other side.
“I am O’odham first, and American or Mexican second or third,” said Ramon Valenzuela, as he walked his two children to school through one gate two miles from his O’odham village in Mexico.
But the pushed-up bottom strands of the cattle fence and the surrounding desert littered with clothing, water jugs and discarded backpacks testify to the growth in illegal immigrant traffic, which surged here after a Border Patrol enforcement squeeze in California and Texas in the mid-1990’s.
Crossers take advantage of a remote network of washes and trails — and sometimes Indian guides — to reach nearby highways bound for cities across the country.
Tribal members, who once gave water and food to the occasional passing migrant, say they have become fed up with groups of illegal immigrants breaking into homes and stealing food, water and clothing, and even using indoor and outdoor electrical outlets to charge cellphones.
With tribal police, health and other services overwhelmed by illegal immigration, the Indians welcomed National Guard members this summer to assist the Border Patrol here. The tribe, after negotiations with the Department of Homeland Security, also agreed to a plan for concrete vehicle barriers at the fence and the grading of the dirt road parallel to it for speedier Border Patrol and tribal police access. The Indians also donated a parcel this year for a small Border Patrol substation and holding pen.
Tribal members, however, fearing the symbolism of a solid wall and concern about the free range of deer, wild horses, coyotes, jackrabbits and other animals they regard as kin, said they would fight the kind of steel-plated fencing that Congress had in mind and that has slackened the crossing flow in previous hot spots like San Diego.
“Animals and our people need to cross freely,” said Verlon Jose, a member of the tribal council representing border villages. “In our tradition we are taught to be concerned about every living thing as if they were people. We don’t want that wall.”
The federal government, the trustee of all Indian lands, could build the fence here without tribal permission, but that option is not being pressed because officials said it might jeopardize the tribe’s cooperation on smuggling and other border crimes.
“We rely on them for cooperation and intelligence and phone calls about illegal activity as much as they depend on us to respond to calls,” said Chuy Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson, who described overall relations as “getting better and better.”
The Tohono number more than 30,000, including 14,000 on the Arizona tribal territory and 1,400 in Mexico. Building a fence would impose many challenges, apart from the political difficulties.