- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION, Ariz. - When daylight fades and dusk drifts into this Indian reservation, the Sonoran Desert begins to rustle. Mesquite trees become hide-outs and the deepwashes turn into human freeways filled with illegal aliens winding their way over worn trails that will carry them into the United States.

They move at night, when it’s cooler and the moon’s glow can guide them from Mexico onto an Indian nation so vast that many easily slip through a flimsy barbed wire fence unnoticed.

“It’s like the desert doesn’t sleep,” tribal police Officer Darrell Ramon said, peering into the night as he drove through the reservation’s isolated communities. “It wakes up at night. Bodies start moving out there. You see headlights way in the desert.”

Despite a strong Border Patrol presence, the illegals still come.

It’s easier here, they say. Here, they find tribal police officers who are overwhelmed. Money is scarce for this tribe, and little help comes from the federal government.

The Tohono O’odham people are tired. Truckloads of illegal aliens trash their land, raid their homes and steal their cars. The flow never stops — not in a place that shares 75 vulnerable miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Deep into the Sonoran, Officer Ramon drives over hilly dirt roads riddled with potholes, never sure of what he will find. Often, it is a group of exhausted illegal aliens waiting for their ride to freedom, or lost, disoriented men who find their way to the main roads, begging for help. Occasionally, there is a family out of food and water. Then there are the bodies. Last year, 51 illegals succumbed to the pounding Arizona heat.

“It’s an everyday thing out here. It’s constant from sundown to sunup,” he said.

Indian Country makes up only 2 percent of the United States, but tribal lands encompass more than 260 miles of international borders. Thirty-six tribes have lands that are close to or cross over international boundaries with Mexico or Canada.

Tens of thousands of illegal aliens cross these borders and disappear into the heart of Indian Country each year, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

Tribes feel they are on their own, left with easy routes into the United States and not enough money to do a job the federal government should be doing.

This reservation is part of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, the busiest place in the country for illegal border crossings. Last year, more than 491,000 illegals were arrested in this area. Combined with arrests in Yuma to the west, the numbers make up more than half of all illegal aliens arrested in the country.

Indians say most are never caught.

“They know they’ll most likely get through,” Officer Ramon said.

When you reach the border, not far from the main reservation town of Sells, a barbed wire fence extends as far as the eye can see in either direction. A Border Patrol agent waits in his sport utility vehicle under a tree. A helicopter buzzes overhead, dipping low into the desert.

An old pickup truck rumbles up toward the Mexican side. Tribal member Harriet Toro hears the rattle before anyone else.

“Listen,” she said, looking into the emptiness.

The truck approaches, perhaps just for a look, then turns back.

Thereare 24,000 Tohono O’odham members, and 14,000 live on the reservation. Forty percent live in poverty and many still lack basics such as running water and electricity. Unemployment is 42 percent, and only 52 percent of students graduate from high school.

Each year, the tribe spends more than $3 million dealing with illegal alien activity, from offering medical help and paying for autopsies to hauling away trash and abandoned vehicles. The take takes up 60 percent of the tribe’s law-enforcement time.

The tribe would rather spend all that money and time on health care, education and housing.

From 2001 to 2004, the tribe received $310,613 for homeland security planning, training and equipment purchases. This year, the Interior Department gave the tribe $1.3 million to help control immigration, not even half of what the tribe will spend.

“We’re bending over backwards to help the United States, to protect the public and we’re not getting any help,” said tribal Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders. “If this happened in any other area of the country, it would be viewed as a crisis. But it’s the fact that it’s in Indian Country.”

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, also have complained about the lack of funding, which Mr. McCain calls “disgraceful.”

The trouble began for the Tohono O’odham people when the government started cracking down on illegal immigration into California and Texas in 1993.

With more agents and helicopters on duty, smugglers had to find other routes. The result is that Tohono O’odham lands are overrun with illegals. Tribal officials estimate 1,500 people each day cross the border into their reservation.

The tribe and the Border Patrol have a love-hate relationship. Tribal members want the Border Patrol to do its job, but tire of the helicopters and getting stopped on their way back and forth across the border, where the Tohono O’odham’s land extends. They also say the Border Patrol shouldn’t have access to the tribe’s sacred sites.

The Border Patrol insists it works well with the tribe, but a Government Accountability Office report on border security has found that federal lands agencies, Border Patrol and tribal governments lack coordination and that land-management agencies think funding to prevent illegal crossings has been insufficient.

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