The Borderline: Indigenous Communities on the International Frontier

Feb 19th, 2015 | By | Category: 26-3: Global Indigenous Higher Education, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Rachael Marchbanks

borderlineShortly 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?

U.S. Immigration and Border Enforcement

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).

Proponents say that its intention is not to stop the influx but mainly to add a layer of security, slowing down unauthorized crossings (Caldwell, 2008). Since 2008, apprehensions by the Border Patrol have dropped by 53%, which according to the federal government indicates fewer attempts to illegally cross the border. Additionally, the amount of drugs, guns, and cash seized by the Border Patrol has increased over the last three years (Department of Homeland Security, 2013). Statistics show that unauthorized immigration peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million, and has declined since then (Passal and Cohn, 2014).

Immigration Control at the Local Level

For most of the 20th century, the federal government has taken control of immigration policy and enforcement. As recently as 1996, a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel Opinion stated that state police do not have legal authority to “arrest or detain aliens solely for the purpose of civil immigration proceedings as opposed to criminal prosecution” (Roseborough, 1996). However, in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a new policy which gave state and local police unprecedented authority to enforce immigration law (Waslin, 2010). Ashcroft’s interpretation of federal immigration law opened the door for states to begin passing some of their own immigration laws. Since then, states have attempted to enact a record number of laws addressing immigration control. In April 2010, Arizona passed what was known as the nation’s toughest bill on unauthorized immigration. Arizona Senate Bill 1070, also known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, criminalizes unauthorized immigration and requires immigrants to carry identification documents proving their legal right to be in the United States. Under the Act’s original provisions, police officers were mandated to detain and even arrest those they suspect of living and working in the United States illegally and who could not produce valid documentation (Archibold, 2010). In June 2012, the Supreme Court struck down some of these more extreme provisions, but allowed parts of the controversial “show me your papers” section to remain (Sherman, 2012).

Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and similar laws have been heavily criticized. Opponents claim they negatively affect the economy, driving away investment, businesses, and workers (Liasson, 2011). Enforcement of immigration law by local police requires extensive training and additional resources from the limited budgets of cities and states. Moreover, efforts to enforce such laws increase the possibility of racial profiling and civil rights violations, resulting in costly lawsuits (Waslin, 2010). However, tough state immigration laws are favored by others who argue that the federal government is not doing enough to stop unauthorized immigration and that states such as Arizona must act, since drug smuggling and other illicit trans-border activities take place in their backyard (Marizco, 2012).

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Senate Bill 1070, the number of proposed state bills on immigration has dropped. Some states, however, continue to pursue policies to discourage immigrants. When President Obama declared that “DREAMers” (undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at an early age) would be eligible to apply for work permits, Arizona, Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, and Nebraska announced they would not issue them driver’s licenses. Due to the unpopularity of such measures, however, some states have reversed this policy (Freed Wessler, 2013).

Tribal Sovereignty and Border Enforcement Issues

Native peoples have been impacted by foreign-imposed borders ever since European colonization. Tribal lands were artificially divided when the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian borders were formed, cutting off Indigenous people from their traditional homelands, relatives, and sacred sites. Tribes have been displaced and relocated to other regions as well. Currently, 25 tribes have land with approximately 200 miles of international borderlands between the United States, Canada, and Mexico (National Native American Law Enforcement Association, 2002). These tribes must navigate conflicting state, federal, and international policies which sometimes interfere with tribal sovereignty.

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