Indigenous Rights Are Human Rights: Violations Rampant at U.S.-Mexico Border

By Joshua Lam

In the early 2000s, Faustino Romero Zepeda was deported to Mexico after returning from tribal business to his Tohono O’odham home north of the border, despite the fact that he was carrying his legal tribal ID. Zepeda ended up being barred from entering the United States for five years. 

Although Zepeda did eventually manage to obtain a visa, many believe that Zepeda should have already had U.S. citizenship, too. Like many indigenous people, Zepeda’s U.S.-born grandmother was never properly registered with a birth certificate in the U.S., denying Zepeda and his mother their right to citizenship. On the other hand, many Mexican-born indigenous people have the problem of not being properly registered in Mexico, thus unrightfully being unable to apply for visas and passports and being denied access to their native lands above the border. 

Contemporary discussions on U.S.-Latin American relations tend to center on the “decolonial,” many times referring to neocolonial U.S. practices throughout the Americas. All too often, our decolonial conversations fail to center on the countless number of indigenous groups that are most profoundly impacted by neocolonial and settler colonial practices in the U.S. 

The same structures that have maintained dominance over indigenous peoples over the past few hundred years still manifest themselves today and can be seen intersecting at the U.S.-Mexico border such as in cases like that of Zepeda. They harm not only the indigenous communities that exist within the borders of the United States, but also Central American native communities and migrants. The settler state implicitly promotes the eradication of these indigenous groups through political practices and intentional neglect.

Zepeda’s case is not isolated, nor is it the first time that the Tohono O’odham nation found problems with borders. In 1848, the Mexican cession resulted in a large group of indigenous nations falling under the United States’ jurisdiction. Because of the cession, the Tohono O’odham people found their nation split in two by the newly established U.S.-Mexico border. The Tohono O’odham is one of the largest of the recognized native lands in the United States, amounting to about the size of Connecticut. This excludes Tohono O’odham land in northwestern Mexico, as well as the unrecognized traditional Tohono O’odham lands where the nation’s people historically settled. 

Because of this split, the Tohono O’odham nation has directly seen the impact of every policy implemented at the U.S.-Mexico Border. Tribal members have become subject to unwarranted deportation, constant surveillance, and harassment by Border Patrol officers.

According to the nation’s leaders, 2,000 of its 34,000 members live on the Mexican side of the nation and find themselves more and more isolated as the border becomes less permeable. Although members of the nation have been involved in protests and have offered resistance against implementation of U.S. border policies, there are also concerns amongst members and especially within the tribal council about the nation’s relationship with the United States. The U.S. has recognized the sovereignty of the entire nation, including the Mexican side, theoretically affording all tribal members the same rights and privileges. 

However, the tribal government feels immense pressure to approve any proposals given by the United States government. On March 22, the Legislative Council approved new surveillance towers along the border under Elbit Systems, an Israeli company known for its contributions to the militarization of the Israel-Palestine border. Tribal members currently are allowed to travel between the two sides but are subject to criminal punishment if they do so without first consulting a border officer. With the addition of increased surveillance, it becomes more difficult for members of the nation to make regular trips to sacred sites and to visit family members who have passed. Members of the nation have even been deported from the U.S. into Mexico, as is the case of Zepeda.

The tribal government struggles to function under the dynamic that the U.S. has created to keep control over native reservations. The settler state takes advantage of the poor conditions of native reservations, which are both created by and perpetuated by the U.S. government, resulting in a dependency on federal funding and aid. Additionally, the U.S. government offers compensation for the leasing of land for projects like the surveillance towers. It is also becoming increasingly clear that these policies are not meant to only surveil Mexican migrants: Geographer Kenneth Madsen reports that one Border Patrol agent believed that 80-90 percent of Tohono O’odham nation residents were involved in smuggling. 

With no extant methods or attempts to address these beliefs, it is unsurprising that the nation’s people find themselves being harassed by agents daily. In an interview with MTV news, Raeshaun Ramon shared that he believes he found a hidden surveillance camera in a bush near his home. Tools like these surveillance towers easily become a way to monitor the everyday lives of Tohono O’odham people, especially since many of them live a walking distance from the physical border. 

These policies are problematic but not just for the direct threat they pose to members of the Tohono O’odham nation. They also create a dangerous culture and precedent wherein indigenous nations lose their sovereignty for the interests of the American government, and it poses the risk of normalizing militarization in indigenous communities. These are not isolated incidents. They exist among a variety of projects that benefit the U.S. government, ranging from oil pipelines to extradition and fugitive laws.

In addition to the nations and tribes above the Río Grande, United States immigration policies also affect indigenous peoples migrating from Mexico. Indigenous Mexicans find themselves disproportionately negatively impacted by U.S. immigration policies relative to their non-native counterparts

In 2015, a report by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed that seven different indigenous languages were represented significantly in ICE facilities, including K’iche’, Mam, Achi, Ixil, Awakatek, Popti, and Q’anjob’al. Although ICE purportedly seeks to improve its language access through working groups and more interpreters, as seen in the same report, cases continue to appear in 2019 where those that speak a language other than Spanish join the large backlog of over 800,000 cases in the immigration court system. Various other policies result in a lack of adequate communication between the judge, the lawyers, and the client, which can pose a serious risk to the client’s safety. 

A Q’anjob’al speaker, Magdalena Lucas Antonio de Pascual, stated through an interpreter that she had crossed the border illegally when the judge was only asking what language she spoke. In addition to that, interpretation, when available, only occurs when someone speaks directly to the client or defendant, resulting in an incomplete understanding of what is being communicated. 

Incorrect interpretation can pose serious dangers when it comes to medical services for detainees. In 1980, for example, an 18-year-old baseball player ended up quadriplegic because of an incorrect interpretation of the word Spanish word “intoxicado.” A family member, not a trained interpreter, conveyed to the doctor that the baseball player was “intoxicado,” which was quickly taken as the English “intoxicated.” The English word is directly associated with drugs and alcohol, so the doctor made an incorrect diagnosis of drug overdose. In Spanish, “intoxicado” generally means poisoned, whether by food poisoning or drugs and alcohol. The incorrect diagnosis led the doctor to not consider other options and to miss the blood that was pooling in the patient’s brain, suppressing his brain stem and rendering him quadriplegic.

Language can also be used as a method of targeted control, not just neglect of services. Linguistic genocide is a very real method used by colonial nations to control indigenous and migrant populations. By failing to prioritize language access at the border, the United States is complicit in the loss of indigenous languages. As the number of indigenous migrants continues to increase, especially since indigenous peoples are especially susceptible to the push factors that are forcing them to migrate—poverty, violence, access to education, hunger, climate change—indigenous languages become increasingly susceptible to extinction. 

This failure to provide language access is a reiteration of hegemonic language policies and culture throughout the United States, originating in the form of the “Indian Residential Schools” that existed through the mid-20th century, boarding schools that were prepared to inflict physical and emotional violence on native children in order to “kill the Indian, save the man.” 

Today, the U.S. seems to support Native American bilingualism on paper with the Native American Languages Act of 1990. Yet conditions on reservations, which are perpetuated by lack of appropriate support from the government, and in the case of the Tohono O’odham nation, surveillance and harassment, continually push indigenous youth to migrate to urban areas where there is little to no contact with their heritage languages. It is important to see every action and inaction by the United States, whether that is the omission of services or boarding schools, as an intentional, active neglect.

Speakers of indigenous languages are also more susceptible to the dangers of deportation. Due to misunderstandings, indigenous language speakers might miss hearings or find themselves confused about what forms they are signing. Inability to communicate and lack of any ties to the community in a new area makes it difficult for them to find lawyers or any type of support. Judges will ignore the lack of interpreters and expect indigenous language speakers to operate on the same timeline as those who have complete access to interpretation services. After deportation, indigenous people might find themselves far from their hometown and unable to communicate with Spanish-speaking Mexicans, stranded in unfamiliar cities. Deportees already find themselves susceptible to high rates of homelessness, gang exploitation, and government persecution; indigenous deportees face these problems all the more intensely.

Joaquín Estevan recently faced the intersection of the different issues that indigenous people face between U.S. and Mexico. In August of 2018, he was deported to Nogales, Mexico, outside of Tohono O’odham territory, despite the fact that the Tohono O’odham people are permitted to travel across the border freely with a valid tribal ID. 

The United States left him stranded outside of tribal territory only able to speak the O’odham language. He was deported from the U.S. while attempting to perform his regular tribal duties, carrying ceremonial pots from south of the border to the north. This was a regular duty that his ancestors had been doing for millenia, even after the separation of the Tohono O’odham land by the U.S.-Mexico border. Estevan was accused of having a fraudulent tribal ID and then stopped when he attempted to cross the border by car anyway. Throughout his detention, he was not offered any O’odham-speaking interpreter. They had plucked a member of the Tohono O’odham nation and deported them not only outside of the U.S. but out of Tohono O’odham land.

These problems represent a bigger picture than an issue of a few thousand people at the U.S. southern border. These problems are symptomatic of the United States as a settler nation and the dangers that the indigenous community as a whole faces. 

The small acts of violence negligence committed against members of the Tohono O’odham nation are symptomatic of a larger desire to extinguish the presence of indigenous peoples. Zepeda at least has his citizenship in Mexico, but there are those with no official citizenship in Mexico nor in the United States. For Estevan, he had the aid of his nation’s people to obtain a visa once his ruling had passed. Many indigenous people find themselves to be stateless and inhuman when facing the United States Border Patrol. Being from K’iche’ land, a basic and essential part of their identity becomes obsolete as they step off Mexican land and into border detention. These people legally do not exist and are not imparted the same benefits as those who live on stolen land around them.

Joshua Lam is a senior at Ithaca College studying Spanish.

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