By Natalya Carrico, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Tucked into the southwest recesses of Arizona along the borders of California and Mexico, Yuma has become one of the epicenters of the border wall debate.
One of the hottest, driest, sunniest spots in the U.S. with one of its highest unemployment rates, Yuma is also a city, a county, a Marine Corps Air Station, a territorial prison, and home to the Cocopah Tribe.
When President Trump visited Air Station Yuma in August, Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, seized the opportunity to write an op ed in USA Today to declare that border walls work and “will save countless innocent lives.” Border patrol agents have seen the success firsthand, she wrote.
She pointed to infrastructure investments made possible by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that fortified the fencing at Yuma.
The Cocopah Tribe has been directly affected. In the largest section of the Cocopah Reservation, the U.S.-Mexico border splits through the land, bisecting part of the Colorado River. Border patrol agents frequently surveil the reservation. While this type of activity can be a source of tension for some borderland tribes, Paul Soto, the Director of Planning for the Cocopah Tribe, says there isn’t often interaction between Cocopah families and federal agents. “They (border patrol agents) deal with the Tribal Council, and they also deal with the Cultural Resource Department,” explained Soto, who was honored by the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2015. “Our association is basically agency to agency.”
Jonathan Athens, the Director of Communications for the Cocopah Tribe, wrote in an email concerning tribal and U.S. relations, “The Border Patrol recently requested we provide a presentation to educate them about Cocopah culture.” Compared to the tension and negativity voiced by other tribes along the Mexico border, the overture of U.S. agents actively learning about the Cocopah people could be crucial to keeping interactions positive. “Really it’s not harmonious,” Soto said of relations with border patrol, “but it’s not the headache it used to be.”
Because the reservation is partially in Mexico, over the years the Cocopah have often been a dumping ground for trash that migrants who pass through have left behind. “The traffic has really slowed down from years past,” Soto said. As a Cocopah tribal member who has worked 30 years for his tribe, Soto has seen a lot of changes. He explained that there used to be 1,200 to 1,300 people a day crossing through the reservation from Mexico. These days there are no more than a dozen. Soto attributes that decline in traffic to a mixture of increased border patrol presence, increased farmland in the area, which improves visibility of any activity; and efforts on behalf of tribal police. “Our police units are becoming a little more sophisticated notifying border patrol,” Soto said. “There’s a greater efficiency as they try to deal with this particular problem.”
Cocopah tribe members who live in Mexico cannot legally be recognized by the U.S. as tribal members if they are not also U.S. citizens. Still, Cocopah Mexicans “do come over when a relative passes on this side” for funeral ceremonies, Soto said, adding that the Mexican government was not particularly responsive to facilitating indigenous people crossing the border for such ceremonies. “They’re probably not interested at all because it’s a minute nuisance.” Regardless, Soto expressed the desire of Cocopah people to have “a lot more interaction” with the Mexican government.
In October, eight prototypes for Trump’s proposed border wall were erected near San Diego’s Otay Mesa border crossing, about 175 miles due west of Yuma. According to CNBC, the company with the wall prototype that has the best overall design and function may end up with a contract with the U.S. government. All that is yet to be seen, however, as backlash against the wall plan continues both nationally and internationally and as Congress holds off appropriating the estimated $21.6 billion it would cost to build the wall.
The Tohono O’odham Tribe, whose reservation is about 200 miles east of the Cocopah in Arizona have had a fair amount of media coverage concerning their views on the proposed wall and how their tribe currently handles people migrating across the border and into their lands. On their official website, the Tohono O’odham take a strong, anti-Border Patrol stance, remarking that U.S. Border Patrol has “detained and deported members of the Tohono O’odham Nation who were simply traveling through their own traditional lands.” The Tohono O’odham have the second-largest reservation of land in the United States after the Diné (Navajo), totaling 2.8 million acres.
The Cocopah Tribe has already had experience deciding what kind of barricades should be on their land. “When the first wall was projected in our area,” Soto explained, “Border Patrol and other agencies came in and asked the tribe if they wanted a wall, or would they have other preferences. We preferred the Normandy type of crossbars, so they did establish that. If we had to have any kind of obstruction, that would be our preference.”
When asked about the general perspective of Cocopah Tribe members on Trump building a wall at their border, Soto replied, “Well we’re not going to make it an issue. They, whoever they is, will initiate first. We’re going to cooperate and do what we can to maintain security for the nation.”
* All statements provided by Paul Soto are unofficial and are his own viewpoints.