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An open letter to the UN regarding the Tohono O'odham border

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To the United Nations Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous
Issues:

We are writing in reference to a press release recently circulated by some
members of the Tohono O'odham Nation that contained inaccurate information.
While we are sure the intent of these individuals was not to mislead the
United Nations or the general public, it is imperative that accurate and
complete information on issues of such importance is provided.

The media alert released by these members stated in part:

"The 225-mile-long wall will run along the entire Arizona-Mexico border,
bisecting 74 miles of O'odham land. The fence will be lit 24 hours a day by
400 high-security floodlights, which will impact local residences. Along
the first wall of railroad ties and steel sheets, 145 remote cameras will
conduct surveillance. Homeland Security forces will patrol a paved road
that will that will run in between the first fence and a secondary fence
with razor-edged coils on top."

As the duly-elected leaders of the Tohono O'odham Nation, we submit for the
record the current challenges facing the Tohono O'odham Nation and its
members in relation to its location on the U.S./Mexico border, and the
solutions being undertaken to address these challenges.

The Tohono O'odham Nation is a sovereign government located in Southern
Arizona spanning 2.8 million acres, 75 miles of which is contiguous to the
U.S border with the Republic of Mexico. Our members have lived in the
deserts of Southern Arizona since time immemorial and, because the
U.S.-Mexico international boundary divides our traditional ancestral lands,
there are over 1,400 tribal members who currently reside in Mexico. It is
critical that all recognized members of the Tohono O'odham Nation maintain
the right to cross the border to see families and friends, to receive
services and to participate in religious ceremonies and other events.

Further complicating this issue, U.S. federal government policy for more
than a decade has been to push undocumented immigrants crossing the
U.S.-Mexico international boundary away from populated areas and on to the
lands of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Today, approximately 1,500 undocumented
immigrants and smugglers cross through the Tohono O'odham Nation daily. The
impacts of this activity has stretched the resources of our law enforcement
agencies to the limit and the Nation now spends over $3 million in police
department responses to border related incidents.

Consider:

In 1999, our police officers assisted the federal border officers with 100
undocumented immigrants per month; in 2002 that number increased eightfold
to over 800 per month.

Illegal narcotics seizures have increased over 148 percent in the last
three years from approximately 43,000 pounds in 2001 to 107,000 pounds in
2003.

In a seven-month period between January 2003 and July 2003, 2,675 abandoned
vehicles were found on the reservation with 308 stolen vehicles used for
criminal activities en route to Mexico.

Most importantly, our tribal members live in fear for the safety of their
families and property. Often times, members have been assaulted, their
homes have been broken into by those desperate for food, water and shelter,
and our beautiful Sonoran landscapes are tarnished by the deluge of trash
that is left behind.

In the interest of public safety and an effort to reduce the risk to
property and life, the two District Councils for the communities adjacent
to the border have approved the concept of a vehicle barrier on the
international border. The resolution passed by both the Gu Vo and Chukut
Kuk districts approved the Border Patrol's request for seeking federal
funds to build a vehicle barrier that is designed to stop vehicle traffic
only. After lengthy additional discussions, the vehicle barrier has been
endorsed by the Tohono O'odham Nation's Legislative Council, as well as the
Nation's Executive Office.

It is imperative to note that this vehicle barrier will be in the form of a
small fence that is common in the area, and in no shape or form represent a
militarized "wall" as described by the Indian Country Today article
"O'odham Voice Against the Wall" (Vol. 24, Iss. 6). Nor will it infringe
upon the right of our people to traverse freely between our ancestral lands
in the United States and Mexico. The Tohono O'odham Nation strongly
supports the right of our people to travel between our communities and is
vehemently opposed to any limits placed on this right. We have historically
rejected the militarization of our border and will continue to work with
all relevant federal and state agencies to seek relief for our members.

The continued propagation of inaccurate information by this organization is
a disservice to our members and to the international community at large.
Members of this group never consulted with any of our elected officials nor
did they seek the input of the communities that have borne the brunt of
illegal activity on our border.

While we wholeheartedly welcome the efforts of any interested organization
in seeking solutions, we must all work together in this effort. The
Executive office of the Tohono O'odham Nation, together with the
Legislative Council and District governments, will continue to seek
solutions to the tragedy unfolding on our lands and we urge all concerned
individuals and organizations to address these problems with integrity and
respect for our people and way of life.

As an indigenous community with a unique challenge brought about by our
location, we appreciate this opportunity to address the UN Secretariat of
the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Should you have any questions,
please do not hesitate to contact either of us at (520) 383-2028.

- Vivian Juan-Saunders, Chairwoman Ned Norris Jr., Vice-Chairman Tonono
O'odham Nation