Migrants and Crime Swamp Mexico-U.S. Indian Nation
SELLS, Arizona Indian tribal leader Ned Norris remembers a time when illegal migrants from Mexico would be welcomed to his land after a long trek over the parched deserts of the U.S. border.
In keeping with a long tradition of hospitality, residents of the Tohono O'Odham Nation gave them food, drink, and sometimes even a bed for the night. But now that has changed.
"That was when we were dealing with less than 100 in a month's time frame, but now we are getting more than 1,500 a day, and it has created a lot of problems," Norris said in the sun-baked town of Sells on the Tohono O'Odham reservation.
In the past three years, the Tohono O'Odham, whose ancestral lands reach over the U.S. border into the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, has become a superhighway for undocumented migrants and drugs entering the United States.
Community leaders on the reservation, which has a resident population of some 14,000 people scattered across a wilderness area the size of Connecticut, are counting the soaring social and environmental costs of the boom.
Trash piles up by the ton, thousands of smugglers' vehicles lie abandoned, and police say members of the tribe, whose name means Desert People, are being lured into a life of crime.
"Almost every family out here is affected one way or another, meaning either somebody in their household or somebody next door has been involved in crimes involving either people or drugs," said police Sgt. Vincent Garcia. "It has got out of hand."
Norris says the funneling of traffic through tribal lands began after the U.S. government tightened border security in the cities of San Diego, California, to the west and Nogales, Arizona, to the east in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bands of people traffickers and drug smugglers flocked to take the new route over the border which is marked by just a three-strand, barbed wire fence and increasingly lured local people into a life of crime with the promise of ready cash.
Police say drug smugglers offer $4,000 to haul bales of marijuana the 60 miles north to Tucson from Sells, the nation's capital, and often defer half the promised payment to draw tribal members into making repeat trips.
Meanwhile, migrant traffickers offer local people $300 to drive each illegal migrant north along the same route to Tucson, where they are lodged in safe houses before being moved on to all parts of the United States.
"When you've got somebody flashing $1,000, $2,000, or $5,000 in your face and asking you to take this group of people from this point to that point, then that money looks real good," said Norris, who is deputy chairman of the nation.
Police say the impact of the illicit cross-border trade has had the biggest impact on youngsters growing up in the scrub- and cactus-strewn nation, where unemployment is high.
"They get caught for smuggling. They get felony records and they go to prison, and that affects them when they try to look for a job," Garcia said, as he patroled the town's dusty main strip.
The U.S. Border Patrol say the number of migrants detained on tribal lands has fallen by almost half since an initiative began in March to boost vigilance along the Arizona-Sonora border. But local authorities and residents complain that the influx of migrants is still high and is damaging the reservation's ecologically sensitive lands.
So far this year, people smugglers have abandoned more than 1,300 cars and trucks in the area, which is home to desert animals including black bears, mountain lions, and tarantulas as well as ranched cattle and horses.
Meanwhile, the thousands of migrants making the trek north on foot leave a trail of discarded water bottles, rucksacks, and clothing in desert staging areas where they await pickup by car and truck.
Tribal authorities say the migrants dump about six tons of trash on the nation's lands each month, creating a wasteland panorama that has some elders fearing for the nation's future.
"This village has never been as filthy as it is now," said tribal elder Joann Garcia, as she surveys the community of adobe houses in the tiny desert community where she raised eight children.
"Right now you see young people who say they're Indian and proud, but are they really?"