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Veteran's death focuses attention on Tohono O'odham citizenship act

SELLS, Ariz. -- Tohono O'odham veteran Pablo Lewis' death in August brought new attention to the plight of Tohono O'odham seeking citizenship through an act making its way through Congress.

They live and die along the border of the United States and Mexico without U.S. citizenship.

"We believe it is a matter of human rights. It is very evident that our land was cut in half," Tohono O'odham Chairman Edward Manuel said.

As the Tohono O'odham Citizenship Act of 2001 headed to the Senate, after gaining support in the House, Manuel recalled Lewis, his service to his country and his struggle to gain citizenship for other U.S. military without birth certificates.

"I got a call at midnight saying he had just passed away," Manuel said.

Lewis' photograph appears on the cover of the tribe's new book "It is Not Our Fault." He died Aug. 25 from a head injury sustained in a fall at home.

"Fifty years after his military service, Mr. Lewis still proudly displayed his discharge papers. Mr. Lewis did not consider himself a Mexican citizen or an illegal alien. He considered himself O'odham who proudly served his country, the United States of America," Manuel said.

The Tohono O'odham Nation estimates 7,000 of its 24,000 enrolled members lack U.S. birth certificates. Many were born at home in the United States and others were born in Sonora, Mexico, later attending school and serving in the military in the United States.

Manuel said a birth certificate was not necessary to serve in the military earlier in the 20th century. However, Tohono O'odham veterans later found they were denied military benefits because they lacked a birth certificate.

Some tribal members are unable to obtain Social Security numbers, others cannot work, receive retirement benefits, cash checks or obtain a driver's license. For those living in the United States, the lack of documents could prevent them from visiting relatives in Mexico, a short distance away, because they do not have identification to reenter the United States.

Manuel said one O'odham's home and ranch are bisected by the border of Arizona and Sonora.

"His corral is on the Mexican side, his house is on the U.S. side and his cows are in two countries. We have to write a letter to the Mexican government in order to go down there and fix his well."

About 1,400 tribal members were born and reside south of the border established in 1853, which bisected the O'odham Nation.

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Tohono O'odham Vice Chairman Henry Ramon is among the delegates lobbying for support for the act in Washington this summer.

"Our Mexican members are considered aliens, and yet they are members of the Tohono O'odham Nation."

Margo Cowan, attorney for the tribe also lobbying in Washington, agreed. "It's pretty astounding that members of a sovereign nation need documents from another government to cross their own land."

In an effort to reduce border-crossing problems, the tribe obtained 10-year visas for O'odham living in Mexico.

"It is easier for them to come across now," Manuel said.

In August, Manuel wrote Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pointing out that Lewis was a veteran and deserves to be honored now that the act is going before the Senate.

"Patriotic O'odham men and women like Pablo Lewis have earned the right to be American citizens, not only for themselves, but for all O'odham, regardless where we were born or what documents we possess, now and forever."

Manuel said O'odham have lived in the sacred desert of northern Mexico and southern Arizona since time immemorial.

Yet, the United States has treated O'odham like "de facto American citizens" since 1936 when the United States enumerated O'odham on both sides of the border for what is known as the 'base roll.' The document serves as the justification of the federal recognition of the Tohono O'odham as an American Indian sovereign, he said.

From the end of World War II until the late 1970s, federal school buses traveled back and forth to the O'odham communities in Mexico transporting O'odham children to school on the nation's lands in the United States.

Now, there are a large number of O'odham living on both sides of the border who served in the U.S. military after attending schools here. Those born at home and without birth certificates are treated with shame, he said.

"They were not born in hospitals and can't prove where they were born. Someone has to have known their parents to prove where they were born, but many are very old now or gone. They can't prove it."

Urging Congress to pass the citizenship act, he said, "This situation is a national disgrace.

"Nothing short of full United States citizenship for all enrolled members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, now and forever, is acceptable," Manuel wrote in his letter to Sen. McCain