TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, Ariz. - Here in the shadeless valleys of the Southwest, where the dust whips between patches of dry shrubs and cactuses, the line between Mexico and the United States is a tattered wire fence that pleases no one.
To the Tohono O'odham Indians, the fence is an arbitrary marker that bars them from moving freely across ancestral land that long ago extended into Mexico. To the U.S. government, the fence is symbolic of a glaring weakness in its war on terrorism.
As U.S. officials worried about terrorists tighten security at ports and borders, they have become concerned about the more than 20 American Indian reservations that line hundreds of miles of the borders with Canada and Mexico. Neither the U.S. Border Patrol nor any other state or federal agency has jurisdiction to patrol Indian lands without permission.
The lands are often desolate and remote. But in recent years, a rising number of smugglers and illegal immigrants have taken advantage of such reservations to travel, virtually unnoticed, into the United States. Here on the Tohono O'odham reservation, U.S. officials say, more than 1,000 cross into the country each day.
Law enforcement officials who had never given much thought to the Indian reservations on the borders are suddenly horrified by the idea that terrorists could sneak through these reservations and into the country with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a snowmobile, or even just a backpack and bottle of water.
"I woke up one morning shortly after Sept. 11 and said to myself, `I don't know how many of these tribes are on the border, but I know there are a lot,'" said James W. Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "I knew we were going to have to increase border security" at the reservations.
Ziglar said he and other officials regard the Indian tribes not as a hindrance but as key allies in helping to seal the U.S. border against terrorists.
"This is a grand opportunity to reach out to Indian tribes, who have been segregated from our society, and integrate them into our society and really make them feel part of the American experience," Ziglar said, "because they have a very significant role in the protection of this country."
U.S. officials have launched a broad effort to try to forge closer ties with the tribes. Representatives of 19 reservations accepted invitations to a conference last month in Washington that focused on border security. Federal officials also have sent liaisons to talk with tribe members. In those meetings, officials have urged the tribes to lift curbs that limit patrols of Indian land by U.S. border agents.
So far, the path to collaboration has been anything but easy. Many American Indian groups have gone to these discussions with age-old stories of abuse and deceit at the hands of the U.S. government. To some, the idea of welcoming federal agents to roam their land at will is all but unthinkable.
Last month, Attorney General John Ashcroft told a meeting of American Indian leaders, "We must establish permanent formal relations" with Indian tribes "in order to secure the safety and security of all Americans."
But one tribal elder likened the process to trying to cross a river where there has never been a bridge.
The issue is sensitive for the Tohono O'odham, who also go by the name of Papago. In the early 1990s, when the number of illegal immigrants crossing the reservation began soaring, the Tohono O'odham opened their lands to more border agents. Tighter immigration policies had effectively shut down the borders near San Diego, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, so droves of illegal immigrants went looking for new entryways across the desert.
The Tohono O'odham's ancestral lands have been desecrated by the waves of people, who leave trash and trample vegetation. Their homes have been left vulnerable to break-ins by travelers so hungry and thirsty that dust cakes the crevices of their lips.
The reservation also has become a magnet for drug haulers. The Tohono O'odham Police Department seizes more drugs each year than any other local police department in the country. Last year, the department confiscated 43,000 pounds of marijuana from smugglers.
But although the Border Patrol has helped stymie some of the traffic, many Tohono O'odham complain of patrol agents who stop them three or four times a day, mistaking them for immigrants and demanding U.S. identification, which nation members do not have. Some also contend that the Border Patrol's vehicles do more damage than illegal immigrants do.
The tribe is divided about evenly between those willing to work with the Border Patrol and those who reject the notion that a government can impede people's movement across borders or any other land. Many Tohono O'odham members feed and offer water to the immigrants making the three- to four-day journey across the desert.