My view of borders, sovereignty, life and death was further complicated after meeting with a local human rights organization. The person we met with was from the Tohono O’Odham nation and has developed sharp criticisms of the tribal government’s response to the astonishing number of deaths within the nation’s boundaries. In the fiscal year of 2010, 253 undocumented migrant deaths were recorded by Border Patrol. An average of 50% of undocumented deaths in the Tucson sector occur within the limits of the Tohono O’odham Nation. I hope that this is illustrative of the atrocity happening in the Tohono O’odham Nation (and of course, greater Tucson sector).
Having presented that information, our speaker went on to argue that the Tohono O’odham nation has been complicit with these deaths. The nation is doing nothing to provide much needed water or other resources that are instrumental in saving lives. The speaker took a moralist stand on the issue. For him, God’s law is the highest law. State, federal or any other governmental law should be considered only after a moralist interpretation of a situation such as migrant deaths. As a former Presbyterian Minister on the nation, he was dismayed by the inaction of those in his congregation. Asking his congregation to take action on behalf of this local disaster – as deaths had occurred as close to five miles of the church – the community responded that they did not wish to help criminals. He agrees these people are “criminals” by technically breaking government law. But again, he does not accept privileging government law over God’s law.
With this, he says deaths are becoming “naturalized” in the desert. Inaction on behalf of the migrants perpetuates the situation. The longer the Tohono O’odham nation remains inactive, the more “natural,” the more normal, these deaths look. This is hugely problematic.
However, the situation is less straight forward. Because the Tohono O’odham nation is still U.S. government property – what is called “trust land” – the U.S. still has the authority to dispense border patrol within its limits. Additionally, the Tohono O’odham nation receives federal funds from the U.S. government, on which it depends. This means that the Tohono O’odham government needs to remain in good relations with the U.S. government in order to continue receiving funds. The last thing the Tohono O’odham wish to do is assist “illegal immigration.”
The person we met with is very critical of organizations, such as No More Deaths, who will not provide water within the boundaries of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For No More Deaths, such a policy is in respect of the Tohono O’odham to prevent any further intervention or exploitation by U.S. citizens. For him, this sort of thought privileges Tohono O’odham nation law over God’s higher law. However, as fellow classmates brought up, intervening in other nations on the banner of human rights has been an alibi for military and economic intervention. Such a paradox seems difficult to address.
My first thoughts of how to address some of these problems were structural: Let’s create a situation in which the Tohono O’odham are no longer dependent and subordinate to the U.S. government. Let’s create economic situations in the Americas which migration becomes less needed. Let’s open borders.
Tackling such immense problems is clearly on the agenda. However, deaths will not wait for the abolition of structural violence. What do we do given today’s circumstance? I would offer beginning a network of communication between activists outside and inside the Tohono O’odham nation to begin addressing the myriad of issues that have caused the inaction. I would utilize activists such the person we spoke with who are both a part of the Tohono O’odham and greater Tucson sector community to express the need for action.
It is my own privileged circumstance as a student that allows me to consider such structural and abstract solutions. To those who continue to fight on-the-ground on behalf of the lives of migrants, I offer my admiration and respect.