Border Crackdown Hits Tribes Hard

Native Americans fight to ease restrictions on travel between the United States and Mexico

Jose Matus hugs a telephone to his ear, shutting out another noisy morning in the cramped offices of the Arizona Border Rights Project. In his busy twin roles as spokesman for the watchdog group based in Tucson, Ariz., and spiritual leader of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, he's accustomed to a bit of chaos.

But today's commotion has a personal bent: Mr. Matus is making last-minute arrangements for a trip to the nearby Mexican border, where activists will monitor the enforcement of newly toughened immigration laws. Matus says these get-tough policies have meant growing hardship for his people and other Indians whose homelands straddle the rugged 2,000-mile border. He claims that tribal members are often harassed when they attempt to travel north for medical treatment, religious ceremonies, or to visit relatives.

To the United States Border Patrol, however, increased concerns about drug-running and illegal immigration mean that the border must remain tight, and that there should be no exceptions. The beefed up enforcement is a growing source of controversy here among the saguaro and sagebrush as tribes who have traveled the region freely for centuries are now being forced to take account for borders they had long ignored.

"All indigenous people in Mexico are technically Mexican nationals. But tell that to a Yaqui or an O'odham, and they'll say, 'No, first I'm an Indian,' " said Matus at a gathering of border tribes in August. "That's an issue here. As Indian people, we should have the right to come across. We shouldn't have to meet all the INS [Immigration Naturalization Service] requirements."

To many, the INS requirements may not seem unreasonable: "They're asked for passports or other documents," Matus says. But he adds, "Often these people are from traditional communities and don't have that kind of paperwork. And US officials often aren't sensitive to that."

Indeed, US officials say that tribal members are given no special consideration. But Russel Ahr, spokesman for the INS, acknowledges, "We need to distinguish between two types of tribal members. If they're born in the US, they can declare it when they come across."

Special allowances are rarely made, he says, and then only for "exceptional circumstances," usually involving the crossing of religious leaders for specific ceremonies. Meanwhile, other officials say they can't make exceptions among the millions trying to cross annually without proper documents. "The best policy is a uniform policy," says Rob Daniels of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

Yet to many native Americans, that policy is a break with tradition. For decades, informal arrangements have allowed border tribes like the Yaqui, Tohono O'odham, Cocopah, and Kickapoo to travel between countries, more or less ignoring binational realities. But the latest law-and-order boom has added scores of new Border Patrol, Customs Service and INS agents. And many tribal members say that these newcomers are unaware of the region's ancient migratory ways and have disrupted long-held understandings.

They point to stories of harassment as proof. For example, an old Yaqui man, journeying from Sonora, Mexico, to Tucson's Pascua Yaqui Reservation for a religious holiday, was stopped and his documents were seized. His relatives had to spend two days in a border motel in an effort to get him across.

IN addition to these concerns, border tribes also see other challenges to their lifestyle. Tribal villages - spread from the outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson to pueblos along the Rio Yaqui in Sonora - are under increasing pressure from development and ranching.

Upset by these developments, tribal leaders have pursued a number of potential remedies, ranging from the convening a cross-border council to an O'odham plan to incorporate several tribal villages into a nation recognized by the US and Mexico.

But any final resolution on the border-crossing issue will have to come at the congressional level, and Maura Saavedra, spokeswoman for Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona, says her office has talked with O'odham members. "We've inquired about it," she says. "We're waiting for the O'odham to get back to us."

But some activist view the issue with a greater degree of urgency. "I don't think governments see how global policies affect us right here in this community," Mike Flores, a Border Rights Project member and former O'odham Tribal Councilman, says: "Really, we're in a war just to carry on our life ways."

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