Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2019
Verlon Jose had long vowed President Donald Trump would build a wall along his tribe’s 75-mile border with Mexico only “over my dead body.”
But late last month, the Tohono O’odham Nation’s vice chairman stood at the border and praised a planned wall meant to deter migrants, smugglers — and, according to the tribe, federal agents — from disturbing its lands.
The wall he described was not physical, but virtual: 10 towers up to 140 feet tall, with radar and night vision cameras capable of surveying over several miles and streaming footage around the clock to the Border Patrol.
“The idea is to reduce the footprint of these guys running around, tearing up our land,” Jose said of agents patrolling the reservation.
The integrated fixed towers, or IFTs, as the Border Patrol calls them, were approved in March by a unanimous vote of the tribe’s legislative council, many of them older tribal members.
“It is our hope the IFTs will decrease the flow of illegal trafficking and thus the need for such a large Border Patrol presence on the nation,” said tribal Chairman Edward Manuel. He emphasized that his people remain firmly against a wall.
“The nation will never support a fortified wall on the border, which would divide our people, devastate the environment and destroy sacred sites, all while failing to halt the flow of migrants and smugglers,” he said.
The Tohono O’odham Nation reservation once stretched 350 miles from Phoenix to Hermosillo, Mexico. But Mexico never recognized the tribe’s claims to land. The reservation the U.S. government created in 1917 now covers 2.8 million acres.
Half of the tribe’s 34,000 members live on the reservation, which has its own language, schools, police and a government comprising 11 legislative districts. Two are on the border where the towers will be built: Chukut Kuk to the east, Jose and Juan’s ancestral home, and Gu Vo to the west.
It can take the nation’s 87 tribal police several hours to respond to 911 calls — often related to drug and human smuggling — in remote border villages.
“Some of these ranchers are getting broken into constantly,” said tribal Police Chief Elton Begay.
Tribal police spend more than half their time assisting federal agents and doing other border-related enforcement, Begay said, and the nation spends $3 million annually on border security.
Hundreds of Border Patrol agents and a federally funded team of more than a dozen Native American smuggling trackers called Shadow Wolves patrol the border and reservation.
The agency has tried for nearly a decade to install towers on the reservation so it can catch smugglers before they reach the mountains, said Hernandez. But residents protested and wrote to tribal leaders, worried the towers would disturb the land. Border Patrol contractors had previously disturbed human remains and damaged saguaro cacti, sacred to the Tohono O’odham.
But the Border Patrol continued trying to sway the tribe.
Two years ago, the agency released a study that said tower construction wouldn’t cause archaeological, environmental or community harm. It held community forums and took tribal members on field trips to inspect smaller tower systems near the reservation. It decreased the number of proposed towers in Gu Vo district and redesigned the towers’ bases so they didn’t extend underground.
Border Patrol officials also promised to improve rutted dirt roads leading to the towers and said they would consider adding hardware that would boost cellphone and police radio reception.
During a visit to the border last week, Jose pointed out waist-high fencing. Instead of building tall, impenetrable barriers, as it has in other areas, Border Patrol compromised and erected a vehicle barrier that allows animals such as coyotes, jaguar and javelina hogs to migrate.
Jose described the newly approved towers, which would be north of the easement, as a similar compromise — placating the federal government in hopes it will not build a physical wall. “We’re only as sovereign as the federal government will allow us to be,” Jose said.
During a tour of one of the proposed tower sites last week, Hernandez said the agency does not plan to pull agents from the reservation once the fixed towers are built. Nor does Border Patrol plan to reduce the hidden cameras, sensors and truck-mounted temporary towers already on the reservation. And, he said, there’s still the need for an enhanced border barrier.
“The greatest camera in the world still makes zero arrests. It can’t apprehend somebody,” Hernandez said. “We still need some infrastructure there, the fence or barrier, to slow them down and the agents to make the apprehensions.”
“We all have that same end goal: to protect the nation, its sovereignty and way of life,” he said.
Juan said that now that the towers have been approved, she hopes the Tohono O’odham will mobilize to monitor their impact: whether sacred sites and wildlife are disturbed, what sort of sounds or radiation the towers emit and any changes in nearby residents’ health.
“Everything we do to our land has an effect on us. Our sovereignty is being tested,” she said. “So we’ll go out there and survey the land and keep track of those changes. That’s what sovereignty is.”