STATE CAPITOL, Phoenix – “Last year was the highest recorded year of border crossing deaths within the Tohono O’odham Nation at 125—and there have already been five deaths in 2011. This, along with the $6 million spent in the last three years with border-related activity, has caused us great concern,” remarked Isidro Lopez, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Lopez was one of four presenters discussing immigration issues at the Native American Caucus.
The Native American Caucus is held at the State Capitol every other Wednesday. “The intent of the Caucus is to keep legislative members informed of policy issues impacting Native American constituents,” stated Sen. Jack Jackson Jr. (LD-2). Rep. Albert Hale (LD-2) concurred by saying, “When I arrived at the legislature I realized how many of our members were unaware of issues surrounding Native people in Arizona. The Caucus provides an opportunity to exchange ideas and to educate others on issues impacting Native Americans in Arizona.” The Caucus is open to all legislators and is hosted by Sen. Jack Jackson, Jr. and Reps. Tom Chabin (LD-2), Sally Gonzales (LD-27), Albert Hale.
Immigration was the focus of the March 2 Caucus meeting. Presenters included Isidro Lopez (Tohono O’odham), Jose Matus (Yaqui), Tupac Enrique Acosta (Tonatierra), Sheriff Joseph Dedman, Jr., (Navajo) of Apache County and Shannon Rivers (Akimel O’odham) of the Gila River Indian Community.
One of the most compelling discussions was illegal immigration impacts on Tohono O’odham Nation, a Nation that straddles the Arizona and Mexico border. Lopez elaborated by saying, “Illegal trafficking on the Nation has resulted in its destruction and has negatively affected the plant life and wildlife in our region. We have collected nearly 150 tons of trash in the past six years, as well as thousands of bicycles, more than 75 vehicles, and over 350 gas cans.” He continued, “We have been greatly impacted by illegal border activity, including apprehensions, narcotics seizures, trash clean-up, immigrant deaths, and others.”
Jose Matus, Yaqui Ceremonial Leader, presented another perspective to the Caucus. “Over the past 80 years we (Yaqui members) have been able to travel our historic route to participate in ceremonies. Now, with the issues along the border, our members who reside in Mexico are detained. At times their ceremonial items are taken. Others are not able to cross the border and unable to participate in their own practices with their families.” Matus expressed concern that issues along the border will continue to impact the Yaqui people negatively and urged that their unique status be considered by the legislature.
With a more global perspective, Tupac Enrique Acosta addressed issues of human rights and provided current information from Tonatierra which, is based in central Phoenix and operates the Nahuacalli, Embassy of Indigenous Peoples. “Unless we pursue just evaluation of the immigration issue within a historical perspective…the issue will only be manipulated to the eventual destruction of our self determination as communities, nations and pueblos, and Confederacies of Nations and Pueblos.”
Shannon Rivers (Akimel O’odham) of Gila River Indian Community expressed his concern about how the restriction on mobility impacts cultural, traditional and spiritual practices of the O’odham Community. He stated, “The bills submitted (within the state legislature) show a rise of human rights violations…issues of sovereignty must be addressed at all levels – tribal, state, and international levels.”
Apache County Sheriff Joseph Dedman, Jr., talked about the impact immigration legislation has with law enforcement. “We are bound by the law…realizing that many Native people, especially elders, do not possess or carry identification. This places a deputy in a precarious situation when he knows the elder is a member of a Tribe, but without proper identification this person may be taken into custody.”
Thus far, immigration bills have not addressed the impact to Native Americans. Proposed legislations do not recognize tribal issued identification documents (enrollment cards, passports, census numbers, etc.). Accommodation for participation in religious ceremonies and family events is also lacking. At the same time, migration across the border has desecrated sacred sites with litter and huge amounts of trash strewn across the land. “When considering immigration reform these are all very important factors that need to be brought to the forefront,” expressed Sen. Jackson. “Without well thought out comprehensive reform, the indigenous people of this land will suffer.”
“Too often, legislations are enacted without consideration of Indian Nations’ unique situations and the impact on Indian Nations,” stated Rep. Hale. “Discussion of legislations concerning immigration is a prime example of this lack of consideration. Any comprehensive immigration legislation must address the situation of Indian Nations such as the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Yaqui Indian Nation and their peoples. These are people who did not cross the border but the border crossed them. They have family and relatives on the Mexico side of the border. Open travel across the border for family and ceremonial purposes must be accommodated in any and all immigration legislation.”