A tribe's tale of three identities

Indians in Arizona whose land straddles the US-Mexican border want citizenship.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The road to San Miguel weaves through stands of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus, wandering for flint-dry miles through southern Arizona to the Mexican border. As border ports go, San Miguel itself is a humble affair: some rusty wire, oblong posts, and deep ruts.

For Tohono O'odham Indians such as Ana Antone, however, this route across their reservation is a crucial link to relatives in Mexico, allowing them to travel back and forth for religious ceremonies or seasonal harvests of saguaro fruit. Like many O'odham, Ms. Antone worries with each journey through San Miguel that she'll be stopped by authorities asking for papers she doesn't have.

Born in Mexico, Antone is among 8,400 tribal members who grew up in remote, rustic villages along this international frontier without birth certificates or other documents. After serving with the US Marines and attending college, she returned to the reservation north of the border. Now she works as a counselor here in Sells, a dusty desert town that's home to the tribal government. But she still doesn't have US citizenship.

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Antone lives in a world that includes three nationalities: Mexican, American, and Tohono O'odham. "It gets confusing" she says. "But as O'odham, we're all one people, and we have one land."

Now, freshmen Rep. Raul Grijalva (D) of Arizona wants to turn that concept into law. In a controversial move, he has introduced legislation that would grant US citizenship to all enrolled members of the tribe - including those living in Mexico.

Supporters see the measure as a way to correct an "oversight" that was made more than 150 years ago. But critics see it as giving the O'odham a special privilege - and setting a dangerous precedent for immigration laws.

The dilemma dates back to 1854, when the O'odham's ancestral homeland was halved by the Gadsden Purchase. Today, some 1,000 tribal members remain scattered among small villages in northern Mexico, while in the United States their reservation spans 4,500 square miles, including 60 miles of the US- Mexico border.

No ID, no birth certificates

Henry Ramon, vice chairman of the 25,000-member Tohono O'odham Nation, hopes Representative Grijalva's bill will correct a lingering injustice. "With our way of life here on the reservation, we don't always have documents," says Mr. Ramon. "We were born in our homes, and don't have [birth certificates]."

Recent illegal immigration and security crackdowns on the border have increased the need for such documents: Not long ago, a group of O'odham traveling north from their Mexican homes for medical help on the reservation - services accorded them as registered tribal members - were summarily stopped at the border and detained for hours. Federal officials turned some back.

Many reservation residents in the United States also lack the papers needed to travel back and forth, or even to prove they were born in this country. "My people have lived here since time immemorial," says Ramon. "But many O'odham right here on the reservation are considered illegal aliens" because they lack documents. Records of birth and death, he says, "were just passed down by word-of-mouth, from generation to generation."

Without documents, tribe members in Mexico find it difficult to obtain Mexican passports. And without those passports, they're often unable to get US visas. The visa requirements were eased slightly, after a series of meetings two years ago between the federal officials, representatives from the Tohono O'odham Nation, and the Mexican government.

But Ramon says problems persist. "We were able to get 1,000 visas for the O'odham in Mexico, but people were only given a short time, one or two days, to be here. They couldn't be on this side any longer."

With his bill, Representative Grijalva hopes to put such complications to rest. It's actually identical to a bill introduced a year ago by Rep. Ed Pastor (D) of Arizona. But the measure was lost in the flurry following Sept. 11. "There was a lot of emotion, and a lot of things were put on hold," Grijalva says. "Even now, I think the biggest obstacles are security concerns, and whether it gets embroiled in the whole issue of immigration."

He contends, however, that the issue is about citizenship - not immigration - and notes that the O'odham are "federally recognized tribal members by the secretary of the interior."

Already, some immigration groups have been critical. "It's a dangerous step," says Glenn Spencer, who heads the American Border Patrol, a controversial civilian group that monitors illegal immigration in southern Arizona. Grijalva's bill, says Mr. Spencer, "would essentially give the Tohono O'odham Nation the right to grant US citizenship." He's concerned it's part of a larger political agenda to liberalize immigration laws.

'Pockets' of US citizens

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona, also oppose the proposal. Representative Kolbe has supported efforts to ease crossing requirements for tribal members, but said in an e-mail response that he "cannot support legislation that would create 'pockets' of US citizens in a foreign country and establish a US citizenship document based on tribal membership."

Ramon calls that reasoning flawed, pointing out that for centuries the O'odham passed freely through this desert region - until American treaties split their land in half. "We got caught right in the middle," he says. "I don't think it's anybody's fault. Now the only thing is to just make it right."

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