TOHONO O'ODHAM RESERVATION, Ariz. — Beads of sweat betray Betty Antone's anxiety as she noses the Chevrolet Suburban through a gap in the cow fence that separates the United States and Mexico in this lonesome desert corner.
The trip, once routine for the 23,000 Tohono O'odham Indians whose lands are split in half by the international divide, is suddenly fraught with legal risk.
"I feel like a smuggler, but I have to do it," says Antone, who shuttles ailing tribal members to the reservation hospital on the U.S. side.
Antone has reason to feel jittery--she is, after all, breaking U.S. law. One of her passengers, an 80-year-old man with tuberculosis who's been coughing blood for a month, lacks documents to legally cross the border. And entry anywhere but an official checkpoint also is a violation of U.S. law.
A recent jump in illegal immigration and drug smuggling through this prickly landscape of mesquite and bent-armed saguaro cactus southwest of Tucson has drawn heightened enforcement and dramatically altered life along the 70 miles of border abutting the reservation.
Some of the 1,300 tribal members in Mexico no longer venture north to visit relatives or the reservation's 34-bed clinic; others have been arrested and deported. Counterparts on the U.S. side, many born in Mexico or lacking U.S. citizenship papers, have been forced to stop taking part in religious pilgrimages and other ceremonies in the Mexican border state of Sonora.
Other tribes straddling the U.S.-Mexican border in California and Arizona are also concerned that tighter immigration controls could cleave their ranks forever. Two indigenous groups in Texas with cross-border ties are seeking U.S. citizenship rights.
In related efforts, members of the Tohono O'odham and San Diego's Kumeyaay Indians have joined U.S. and Mexican officials in testing a novel program to provide Mexican passports and U.S. border-crossing cards to Mexican members who typically lack so much as a birth certificate. As a key step, the San Diego tribe is conducting a census in seven indigenous communities in Baja California. Kumeyaay leaders would like Mexican Kumeyaay eventually to be able to work freely on the U.S. side as language teachers or to sell handmade baskets and pots at U.S. Indian casinos.
Tohono O'odham leaders propose a more daring answer: changing U.S. nationality law to grant citizenship to enrolled tribal members in Mexico and to treat tribal identification cards as proof. The proposal reflects a growing desire to fix what leaders consider a historical oversight--that the group was not taken into account in 1853 when Mexico sold to the United States a huge chunk of the Southwest that included land the Tohono O'odham had inhabited for centuries. Likewise, tribal officials said no arrangements for passage were made in the 1930s, when the tribe was recognized by the United States.
Unlike its border with Canada, where the United States permits indigenous Canadians free passage, no sweeping arrangements exist for groups along the Mexican border. The Tohono O'odham, which means "desert people," still consider themselves a single tribe. The idea that they should now have documents to move about their traditional lands strikes some, especially older members, as baffling.
"It's not our fault there is this division," said Alicia Chuhuhua, a Tohono O'odham leader in Pozo Prieto, a Mexican village about 75 miles south of the Arizona border. "They never asked us. It's not our fault that Mexico sold it and the United States bought."
For long after the land transfer, the Tohono O'odham, formerly known as Papago, paid little attention to the border--marked by white obelisks in the desert shrubs that cut the traditional lands roughly in half, each side about the size of Connecticut. The only barrier is a flimsy cattle fence that went up in the 1930s to prevent diseased livestock from wandering into the United States.
The O'odham Nation is the sole U.S.-recognized tribe that enrolls Mexican members, many of whom belong for tribal voting purposes to the 11 Tohono O'odham districts in the United States. Discussions at public meetings shift from the Tohono O'odham language to English, then to Spanish and back again without translation.
Tribal members from both sides have traditionally gathered each year, some on foot, for religious pilgrimages in Mexico. On the U.S. side, a cave atop 7,700-foot Baboquivari Peak is considered home to I'itoi, the most important Tohono O'odham deity, and is a sacred prayer spot for those in crisis or seeking forgiveness.
Family ties stretch from sun-faded stucco homes on the U.S. reservation to adobe shanties in Mexico, where there are about a dozen indigenous communities but no official reservation. Some Mexican members have commuted over dirt roads through three unofficial crossings to jobs in Sells, 30 miles north of the border.