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Tribes as Equal Partners in Homeland Security

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lorinda Riley
March 31, 2017

Police Investigation[5]

By former Pascua Yaqui Attorney General, Fred Urbina.

In recent months, there has been much discussion about illegal immigration in the United States. Concepts such as “extreme vetting,” patriotism tests and travel bans have emerged onto the national stage as tools to protect U.S. sovereignty and security. And while that conversation will likely continue, one piece in this dialogue is missing – tribal borders, which constitutes hundreds of miles of international borders. Tribal nations pre-exist the formation of the US and must defend their own safety, security and sovereignty.

Often the issue of border security is framed as would-be immigrants entering illegally to stay long term, but there are a significant number of border incursions that occur on a near daily basis. One needs only a little creativity to imagine the types of nefarious industries that require people to enter the United States only to return to their home country in a few days, weeks or months. Regardless of the type of border incursions we contemplate, these types of illegal activities constitute serious security breaches.

Tribal communities have jurisdiction over 76 miles of the southern border on the Tohono O’odham Nation (Tohono O’odham) and approximate 65 miles of northern border on the Blackfeet Nation (Blackfeet). In addition tribes have jurisdiction over 135 miles of water borders around the Great Lakes totaling over 260 miles of tribally controlled border.

While Congress has plenary power over immigration, tribes still have primary jurisdiction over the lands within the exterior boundaries of their reservations. According to Ed Norris, Tohono O’odham Chairman, 27,130 undocumented immigrants were arrested on Tohono O’odham lands in 2004 alone and 180,000 pounds of narcotics seized. Tribes have taken this obligation to secure their homelands seriously. In addition to funding 71 police officers, the Tohono O’odham pays for the autopsy and burial costs for those immigrants who died en route to the United States.

Other nations, such as the Blackfeet, sought out grants. Under the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Program the Blackfeet were awarded funds to start a homeland security program. The Gila River Indian Community received $1.2 Million out of $10 Million in fiscal year 2015 for specialized equipment from the Department of Homeland Security’s Tribal Homeland Security Grant Program.

Operation Stonegarden is another DHS grant program aimed at enhancing cooperation and coordination among local, tribal, territorial, state and federal agencies. In 2009 a Presidential Memorandum required each federal agency to designate a senior level official as tribal liaison and much progress was made in increasing productive intergovernmental relations.

By former Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate chairman, Scott German.

By Interim Chair of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Scott German.

In 2010, the Tohono O’odham lead a multi-jurisdictional task force, including the U.S. Border Patrol; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Bureau of Indian Affairs; Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms; and Explosives; Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC); Pinal County Sheriff’s Office; and Tempe Police Department in a takedown operation on tribal land. In a FBI Press Release Norris said, “Our first priority is always the safety of the Tohono O’odham.” This coordinated effort resulted from increased focus on meaningful intergovernmental relations throughout the Bush and Obama administrations.

This relationship has become so strategically important that ICE continues to support a specialized tracking unit called the Shadow Wolves focused on smuggling along the southern border. This unit consists entirely of Native Americans and uses traditional tracking techniques alongside modern technological advancements to fulfill its mission. In true cooperative fashion, the Shadow Wolves have trained anti-smuggling agents worldwide in such countries as Lithuania, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

While the southern border receives the most media attention the northern border has a lot of activity as well with less resources per mile. Although Robert DeRossier, Director of Homeland Security for the Blackfeet, often talks about the challenges inherent in securing such a large border with little resources, he has a decidedly optimistic view of the situation. At a Senate Committee hearing he noted that there have been “extraordinary gains… made in creating partnership with federal agencies” including the Glacier County Sheriff and Glacier Park Police.

Taking this coordination one step further, both Blackfeet and Tohono O’odham participate in the National Network of Fusion Centers, “state and major urban area focal points for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners.”

Individual fusion centers are able to target their coordination in ways that are relevant at a local level. The ACTIC and Montana Analysis & Technical Information Center highlight how fusion centers partnering with tribal nations have benefitted. Fusion centers with tribal nations within their area of responsibility should be mindful of this untapped resource. Criminals perceive tribal lands as safe havens, yet tribal nations are committed to ensuring the safety of their citizens. This creates a perfect opportunity for state, federal and local law enforcement to join forces with tribal nations to further a mutual goal.

The future of these endeavors is uncertain. Will the federal, state and local governments continue to work closely with tribal nations to secure our borders? Or will the new administration roll back decades of progress in federal-tribal relations? Only time will tell.


Author: Lorinda Riley is a professor at the University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu where she teaches justice administration and indigenous governance. Lorinda is a former tribal liaison for the Department of Homeland Security and holds a master’s in American Indian Studies, Juris Doctorate, and Doctorate of Juridical Science in Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy. She can be reached at [email protected].

Interim Chair of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.  

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