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Native American Leader: 'A Wall Is Not The Answer'

Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, says President Trump's proposed wall would devastate his community.
Claire Harbage
Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, says President Trump's proposed wall would devastate his community.

For one Native American tribe whose land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump's proposed border wall would, literally, divide its people.

The Tohono O'odham Nation stretches through the desert from just south of Casa Grande in southern Arizona to the U.S. border — and then beyond, into the Mexican state of Sonora. This means that if Trump gets his $5.7 billion border wall, it would cut right through the tribe's land.

"It would be as if I walked into your home and felt like your home was not safe, but I want to build a wall right smack in the middle of your home and let me divide your family," Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, tells NPR's David Greene. "It is putting a blockage into our way of life, into things that we've been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. And when you interrupt those things, bad things happen."

Jose also notes that his nation has been in existence long before the Gadsden Purchase, which drew the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Plans for the exact wall route have not been released, but because its nation spans both countries, the tribe is concerned; Jose has been lobbying congressional lawmakers.

Jose says the Tohono O'odham land in the U.S. totals 2.8 million acres, home to around 32,000 tribal citizens. About 2,000 tribal citizens live in Mexico, he says, though it's unclear the exact boundaries of that land.

For a long time, there was just a four-strand barbed wire fence marking this stretch of the border. But after the U.S. government struck a deal with the Tohono O'odham in 2006, Jose says vehicle barriers made of heavy steel were installed across most of the 62-mile divide. Now the Tohono O'odham only have three specific points where they can cross, he says.

A more permanent barrier, however, would affect the tribe and could "totally" stop the Tohono O'odham from being able to move in either direction, Jose says. Currently, citizens go back and forth across the border for domestic, religious and cultural purposes — after Border Patrol agents check their IDs and backgrounds, he says.

Supporters of a wall see that section of the border as vulnerable: a rural and desolate place where any number of people can slip into the U.S. without proper documentation. They point to the thousands of migrants picked up each year while trying to cross into the U.S. illegally through the Tohono O'odham nation, as well as the area's drug smuggling problem.

"We share that concern, but a wall is not the answer to stop the drugs or dangerous people from coming to America," he says.

It is not entirely clear whether President Trump has the authority to just take land from the Tohono O'odham tribe to build a wall. Monte Mills, co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana, says that would most likely take an act of Congress.

"The law basically requires that there be some clear statement — usually by Congress — if tribes are going to be deprived of certain rights," he tells NPR.

Interview Highlights

How building a border wall would affect the Tohono O'odham nation

It was affect it greatly — more so because we don't know what that actually means. Are you building a 30-foot concrete wall? A 30-foot steel wall? How are the people going to be able to cross? How are the animals going to be able to cross? It is within our responsibility that we also have to be in consider the wildlife and we cannot interrupt migratory flows of the wildlife. So, yes, it will have a major impact on us. It does so now even with the vehicle barriers. There are traditional routes that we use for our sacred ceremonies and that people have used for many, many years. When we negotiated our compromise with the vehicle barrier, we're still able to somewhat go in those areas. But a wall? Would totally stop us from going in either direction. That would certainly interrupt the traditional practices of our people.

On his experiences dealing with migrants trying to cross through the Tohono O'odham nation illegally

We have a ranch a few miles just north of the international border, and they come by the ranch way too often. There'd been a decrease over the years, but they still come by and if we're not there ... they'll break in and help themselves to food and water.

The Tohono O'odham have always been hospitable people — even with [the] first European contact. So that's just our thing. Nowadays it's gotten where a lot of drugs are being involved. They seem to just want to go in and destroy your homes, and that's what we feel that we're being disrespected and that we're being violated by these migrant crossers. But at the same time there are two probably different groups of people that come through the border. You got the migrants that are coming looking for the American dream and then you got those who are hauling drugs.

On the relationship between tribal police and Border Patrol agents

We have hundreds of Border Patrol on patrol on our nation. I'd like to say that we have an OK relationship. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. I can't say it's a great relationship, but we work together [to stop illegal border crossing]. Our local law enforcement works with the Border Patrol on securing the border. Our local law enforcement spent about 60 to 70 percent of their time on border issues, and about $3 million annually on border issues. So we work hand-in-hand with them.

On the argument that a border wall would address concerns of illegal immigration and national security

I believe that working together we can do more.

Technology is a key. Right now they're proposing the integrated fixed tower – that's a virtual wall that's going to be out there that's going to be the eyes out there. ... So that's why we believe that a wall would not work. Yes, one terrorist could come through there, but look at how many terrorists that we already have in America. When you look at when you look at all the tragedies that happen in America, and I have not done any research on this myself, but if you look at how [much] devastation America has faced, how much is caused by people coming across the border? It's America killing America.

The digital version of this story contains highlights from the full interview.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: January 23, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous Web version of this story said the U.S. is home to 34,000 Tohono O'odham tribal citizens and about 2,000 tribal citizens live in Mexico. There are about 32,000 Tohono O'odham tribal citizens in the U.S.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a former producer who occasionally directed the show. She joined the staff in June 2015 and produced a variety of stories, including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. During her time at NPR, Ashley also produced for All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She also occasionally reported on both domestic and international news.
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