Border Militarization as Occupation

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images


“Over my dead body will a wall be built” said Verlon Jose, the tribal chairman for the Tohono O’odham, after President Trump signed an executive order in January, 2017 to move ahead with plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Throughout history, the Tohono O’odham and other tribes native to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands like the Kickapoo, Yaqui, and Lipan Apache, have been systemically uprooted, divided and displaced by Anglo colonization and international diplomacy and politics. This history of oppression continues today as border militarization has had major consequences for the everyday life and the cultural traditions of binational tribes across the southwest.

The Tohono O’odham are an indigenous tribe in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Their reservation spans along the international borderline for 62 miles, with 2,000 of its 34,000 tribal members living in Mexico. Federal policy and militarization in the region have caused a variety of problems for the O’odham, from separating family members, to interrupting cultural and religious events and even forcing drug smuggling and human trafficking onto their indigenous lands.

Tribes have also had to deal with racial profiling, customs harassment and heavily armed law enforcement patrolling on their reservation land. Such issues exist not only at the U.S. border with Mexico, but with Canada as well. As the border and immigration enforcement has traveled to other parts of the country, so have injustices and occupation of indigenous lands. The Mohawk tribe on the border with Canada have reported having to deal with similar issues with Customs and Border Enforcement.

While state governments across North America have always neglected the rights of native peoples, since 9/11 heightened border militarization and securitization has led to many injustices against Indians in the borderlands. In this chapter, we hope to call attention to the consequences that U.S. border policy has had on indigenous communities in the U.S. Mexico borderlands and across the country.

In this chapter, you will find:
U.S.-Mexico Border Wreaks Havoc on Lives of an Indigenous Desert Tribe by Kate Kilpatrick
There’s No O’Odham Word for Wall, Video Press Release by Tohono O’odham Nation
The Borderline: Indigenous Communities on the International Frontier by Rachael Marchbank for the Tribal College Journal of American Higher Education
Links and Resources

Or, return to the Border Militarization Resource Guide main page.

Kate Kilpatrick
U.S.-Mexico Border Wreaks Havoc on Lives of an Indigenous Desert Tribe

From Al Jazeera America

SAN MANUEL, Mexico — Jesús Manuel Casares Figueroa needs a catheter or he will die. His bloated chest pressed against his blue jacket as he sat in a wheelchair in front of his uncle’s modest concrete-block home, one of a handful in this traditional village of the O’odham in the Sonoran desert. His mother touched a gold-colored earring that dangled from Jesús Manuel’s left ear. Her son was born with spina bifida, she explained, and a chronic kidney infection has complicated his condition.

In February, the doctor said Jesús Manuel urgently needed the operation. His family didn’t have the money then, and they don’t have it now.

So in a few hours mother and son will go door to door asking for donations in the neighboring O’odham village, about 60 miles south of Nogales.

For thousands of years, the Tohono O’odham (meaning “Desert People”) inhabited what is today southern Arizona and the northern state of Sonora in Mexico. But the O’odham were there long before either Mexico or the U.S. existed as nations. “We’ve always been here,” said Amy Juan, 28, a young activist on the reservation. “Nobody can argue that we weren’t here first.”

After the Mexican-American War, the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico was drawn at the Gila River, just north of the O’odham ancestral lands. But the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 redrew the border right through O’odham territory. The O’odham were never consulted.

Read the rest:

Tohono O’odham Nation
“There’s No O’odham Word for Wall”

Press Release from the Tohono O’odham Nation and Office of the Chairman and Vice Chairman: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2017

SELLS, Ariz. – The Tohono O’odham Nation has released a video, “There’s No O’odham Word for Wall,” detailing its opposition to the fortified border wall proposed by President Trump’s recent Executive Order. The video also reiterates the Nation’s commitment to continue working with federal, state and local agencies on border security measures with a proven record of success.

The current international border was drawn through the Nation’s traditional lands in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, which the Tohono O’odham have inhabited since time immemorial. Today, the Nation’s reservation includes 75 miles of the US‐Mexico border, with tribal members residing on both sides of the border.

As such, the Tohono O’odham Nation has substantial experience in border security efforts.  In recent years the Nation’s Legislative Council has passed over 20 resolutions supporting border enforcement efforts and opposing a fortified wall.  On Feb. 7, 2017 the Nation’s Legislative Council passed a Resolution restating this opposition.  The Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, National Congress of American Indians and other organizations have formally supported this Resolution.

The video highlights how the proposed wall would further split the Nation in half and have dramatic cultural and environmental impacts. It would also face severe geographic challenges in the rough desert terrain. A wall would also be easily bypassed in remote regions with the same tunnel and ladder tactics that undocumented immigrants already use to overcome barriers even in more populated areas.

Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Edward D. Manuel said “This video provides insight on the many reasons why the Tohono O’odham Nation can not and will not support a fortified border wall. The Nation remains committed to working together to protect the border using proven and successful techniques. We invite the President and his Administration to visit the Nation, see these challenges firsthand, and begin a productive dialogue for moving forward.”

Link to press release:

Rachael Marchbank
The Borderline: Indigenous Communities on the International Frontier

Tribal College, Journal of American Indian Higher Education

Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, a simple T-shirt began appearing at reservation flea markets, tourist shops, and tribal college campuses. The shirt depicts a photograph taken in 1886 of the Apache leader Geronimo—known for rebelling, with his band of Apache warriors, against Mexican and American encroachment and invasion of their territory—standing with armed family members. The slogan on the shirt reads, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” This simple yet powerful message resonated with Native and non-Native people alike, calling attention to the fact that the land we now call the United States was already occupied by and forcefully taken from Indigenous nations.

The attack on the World Trade Towers initiated drastic changes in U.S. policy on securing its borders. It was the catalyst for the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, which combined 40 different agencies charged with securing the nation in various capacities. U.S. borders came under intense scrutiny and new immigration laws and policies were enacted with far-reaching consequences. How did these policy changes affect the welfare and sovereign rights of tribal nations, especially those whose traditional homelands span the modern borders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico?


The United States is a wealthy country by any standard, and each year attracts thousands of immigrants, documented or otherwise, who seek employment, political asylum, and the chance to pursue a better life. With the goal of preventing terrorism after 9/11 and controlling unauthorized immigration and smuggling, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on tightening borders and monitoring foreigners in the country—with mixed results.

Approximately 39.9 million foreign-born individuals reside in the United States, 11.2 million of whom are said to be unauthorized. About half of these unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico (Passal and Cohn, 2014). In an effort to control unauthorized immigration across the southern border, Congress passed the controversial Secure Fence Act of 2006 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, which mandated construction of 670 miles of fence along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico (University of Texas at Austin School of Law, n.d.). Currently 651 miles of fencing has been completed, at a cost of about $2.4 billion (Department of Homeland Security, 2013; Sais, 2013). There are additional plans to cover a total of 900 miles by 2016, with an assortment of U.S. Border Patrol agents and technology, including surveillance towers, drones, ground sensors, mobile spy systems, and remote video cameras (Preston, 2014). More than 18,500 U.S. agents patrol the southern border, a historically high number (Department of Homeland Security, 2013).

The fence has become unpopular with many borderline communities and local governments, who have formed coalitions and adopted formal statements against it. They attest that it disrupts everyday living yet is easily breached by undocumented immigrants and smugglers. Soon after the border fence was constructed, people began breaching segments with torches, hacksaws, and ladders. Certain sections need continual, almost daily repair. Some parts have settled and gaps between the posts are forming where people can squeeze through. Additional complaints include private property owners whose lands have been divided. Farmers and businessmen along the Texas border in the Rio Grande valley have opposed construction of the fence because it blocks their access to the river and hurts companies that conduct legal commerce across the border (Villanueva, 2008).



In These Times: The Police Killings No One Is Talking About

Tohono O’odham along the US-Mexico Border (Timeline)

Caught in the Crossfire: U.S.-Mexico Border Militarization Threatens Way of Life for Native Tribe (Democracy Now!)

Imaginary Lines, Real Consequences: The Effect of the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border on Indigenous Peoples (Joseph Kowalski, American Indian Law Journal)

“Over my dead body’: tribe aims to block Trump’s border wall on Arizona land (Sam Levin, the guardian)

Not our borders: Indigenous people and the struggle to maintain shared lives and cultures in post-9/11 North America (Sara Singleton, Ph.D., Border Policy Research Institute Western Washington University)

Native Nations and U.S. Borders, Challenges to Indigenous Culture, Citizenship, and Security (Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, The University of Arizona: Rachel Rose Starks, Jen McCormack, Stephen Cornell)

Border Wall would Cleave Tribe, and its Connection to Ancestral Land (Fernanda Santos, NY Times)