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Tohono O'odham

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PHOENIX (AP) ? An American Indian tribe whose members live in an area straddling Arizona and Mexico are pushing for a hearing on a bill that would make them citizens of the United States, resulting in easier border crossings to visit family or gain access to tribal services.

The 24,000-member Tohono O'odham tribe lives in a Connecticut-size reservation in the Sonoran Desert along the U.S.-Mexican border, and for decades passed freely into Mexico onto land they've always considered their own.

About 1,400 members of the tribe were born on the Mexican side and 500 still live there. An additional 7,000 were born in the United States but lack proof and have been lumped with undocumented immigrants by U.S. immigration officials.

Last April, Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Tucson, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would make tribal membership cards the equivalent of U.S. passports, allowing members to cross the border freely.

But the bill sits in the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, put on the back burner after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Tribal leaders now say they've gathered enough support to persuade politicians to make it a priority.

'We're ready and the people of Arizona are ready,' said Margo Cowan, general counsel for the Tohono O'odham Nation. 'It's a simple matter that Indians and non-Indians want because it just makes sense.'

The tribe is planning a publicity blitz they say will get Washington's attention.

Copies of a book filled with stories detailing tribal members' struggle for freedom on their land are being distributed. Resolutions urging passage of the O'odham bill abound, from the Arizona Senate and 11 of 15 counties, to support from newspapers and numerous Native American tribes and groups.

Several city councils in Sonora, Mexico, have also passed resolutions. Word reached the Mexican ambassador in Washington, who took up the matter with President Vicente Fox, who wants to meet with O'odham leaders, Cowan said.

Now the tribe's goal is to enlist support from the state's congressional delegation and get the bill introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The bill in the U.S. House is expected to move quickly and a hearing should be scheduled by next month, Cowan said.

It may still be a tough sell with Republicans, however.

Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a House immigration subcommittee member, says many obstacles stand in the way of swift approval of the bill, starting with the lack of Republican backing. All but seven of the current 118 co-sponsors are Democrats.

'I also have some concerns about benefits,' said Flake, who met with tribal leaders at his Mesa office last week. 'As a taxpayer, I'd have some questions about whether tribal members south of the border should have access to welfare, Social Security and other benefits.'

Flake is still studying the issue, but Rep. Jim Kolbe, who represents border communities in southeastern Arizona, opposes the bill.

Meanwhile, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has issued border crossing cards to tribal members to help them avoid confrontation at the border, an agency spokeswoman said.