Rights of Passage

O'odhams and Yaquis face obstacles when crossing the border to visit the reservations where they were born.

Dust clouds inhabit the road to San Miguel. They shroud mesquite and prickly pear, and wander like ghosts for bone-dry miles through Indian Country, right down to the Mexican line.

As border ports go, San Miguel itself is a humble affair: some rusty wire, a few oblong posts and two very deep ruts.

For people of the Tohono O'odham Reservation, however, this route is among the crucial links to their numerous kinfolk in Mexico. They are a nation divided, their ancestral homeland indecorously halved by the 1854 Gadsden Purchase.

It is an old wound, recently salted.

Border crackdowns in the 1990s--and current fears of terrorist infiltration--have made informal passage here nearly impossible. Even at official ports such as Lukeville, O'odham from Mexico often lack the documents necessary to migrate back and forth as they have for centuries.

Rep. Raul Grijalva hopes to change all that. Among his first moves as new District 7 congressman was the introduction of the Tohono O'odham Citizenship Act, which would grant United States citizenship to more than 8,000 O'dham, both in Mexico and in this country.

"We want to correct an oversight, a mistake, whatever you want to call it," says Grijalva, a Democrat. "Some of the elders I've met over time, they are passing away (without winning citizenship)--that's one of the saddest things I've seen."

It's not the first time such a bill has been proposed. District 4 Rep. Ed Pastor introduced legislation identical to Grijalva's bill, but the measure was lost in the flurry of the aftermath following Sept. 11.

"There was a lot of emotion, and a lot of things were put on hold," Grijalva says. "Even now, I think the biggest obstacles are security concerns, and whether it gets embroiled in the whole issue of immigration. Those are the two areas where I can have some difficulty."

Nor did Grijalva recently stumble into the issue. As a longtime Pima County supervisor, he lobbied on behalf of Pastor's bill in Washington. And the Board of Supervisors is on record supporting blanket O'odham citizenship.

"Both by desire, and by jurisdiction as congressman, I inherited it," Grijalva says. "I thought it could be good, and I thought the time was right."

Today, some 1,000 tribal members remain scattered among small villages in Sonora, while in this country, their overall homeland has shrunk from about 60,000 square miles to less than 4,500.

The Yaquis face a similar situation, with a reservation near Tucson, and tribal members on both sides of the border. They began fleeing Mexico in the 1880s to escape bitter government persecution. Today, roughly 30,000 still live in northern Sonora, concentrated mostly along the Rio Yaqui, while population pockets are scattered north of the border in Tucson and Phoenix.

Jose Matus is a Yaqui spiritual leader and spokesman for the Tucson-based Derechos Humanos, an immigrants' rights group. In earlier interviews, he said toughened border enforcement over the last decade has meant endless hardships for Yaquis and O'odham. For example, tribal members are often harassed when traveling north for treatment, religious ceremonies or to visit relatives. Matus recalled an incident when an old Yaqui man, journeying from Sonora to Tucson's Pascua Yaqui Reservation for a religious holiday, was stopped and his paltry documents seized. His relatives spent two days in a border motel in an effort to get him to the United States.

"As Indian people, we should have the right to come across," Matus said.

Still, the Yaquis aren't included in Grijalva's legislation.

"Not this time around," the congressman says, "because it just makes the whole thing more complicated."

At the same time, the tribe's border problems won't be ignored, he says. Yaquis have found it difficult to enter the United States "for training in the tribe's casino operations. And there continue to be problems getting elders and leaders into this country to conduct their ceremonies."

While the O'odham inhabit a different--and far larger--patch of real estate than the Yaquis, their hassles are nearly identical. An example: Not long ago, a group traveling north from their Mexican homes for medical help on the Tohono O'odham Reservation--services accorded them as registered tribal members--were summarily stopped at the border and marooned for hours. U.S. Customs officials turned some back. Their driver, a tribal employee, was accused of transporting illegals, reportedly harassed and nearly jailed.

Many O'odham in the United States also lack the paperwork needed to travel back and forth--or even to prove they were born in this country. "With our way of life here on the reservation, we don't always have documents," says Henry Ramon, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation. "We were born in our homes, and don't have (birth certificates). Even those who volunteered to fight in the war don't have birth certificates."

Instead, such records "were just passed down by word-of-mouth, from generation to generation."

For tribal members in Mexico, missing records make it difficult for them to obtain Mexican passports. And without those passports, they're often unable to get U.S. visas.

The visa requirements were eased slightly, after a series of meetings two years ago between the INS., the U.S. State Department and representatives from the Tohono O'odham Nation and the Mexican government. However, Ramon says problems persist.

"We were able to get 1,000 visas for the O'odham in Mexico, but people were only given a short time, one or two days, to be here," he says. "They couldn't be on this side any longer."

Grijalva is optimistic about the chances of righting the wrong.

"It's not really an issue dealing with immigration," the congressman says. "It's an issue dealing with citizenship, tribal status and ingress for recognized tribal members. All of the O'odham are federally recognized tribal members, by the Secretary of the Interior. And that's the linchpin--it's what we're hanging our hat on."

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