CAMPO, California (Reuters) - As U.S. authorities tighten security on the porous Mexico border in this election year, some communities have been caught off guard by government plans to build miles of fencing and barriers.
But members of one Native American tribe whose scattered settlements stud the rocky highlands of southern California and northwest Mexico, saw the buildup coming years ago and have turned something they dreaded to their advantage.
“There was a sense among a lot of people that something needed to be done to prevent us from losing touch ... and so that’s what we did,” said Mike Connolly, a councilman with the Campo Band of the Kumeyaay nation.
Expecting the wall to come crashing down on their community, the tribes have deepened ties, from cultural exchanges to visa regimens that ensure families can easily cross the U.S.-Mexico divide.
For centuries the Kumeyaay thrived as farmers and hunter gatherers in the borderlands, where there are now 13 Kumeyaay reservations, or “bands,” dispersed across the rugged highland corner of San Diego County and four further settlements in Baja California, Mexico.
Their dispersed traditional settlements gave names to many of the cities and towns on both sides of the international line, including Tecuan, which became Tijuana, now the largest city on the border, and Otay, an area of trade parks in southern California.
Members of different settlements in Mexico and California used to cross informally back and forth over the line to visit their kin for decades, often bypassing checkpoints and simply hopping over a cattle fence in the oak-studded highlands east of San Diego,
But as a crackdown on illegal immigration from Mexico placed more border police and taller steel barriers along the line near San Diego in the 1990s, the members of the fragmented tribe realized that they needed to take decisive action if they were to stay together.
“The Kumeyaay were like a broken vase, and we needed the pieces back together again,” said Louie Guassac, executive director of the Kumeyaay Border Task Force.
Curbing illegal immigration and securing the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) Mexico border have become hot button topics in the United States, ranking high with both Republican and Democratic hopefuls seeking to be their party’s pick to replace President George W. Bush in the November election.
Amid demand for action, Washington is seeking to complete 670 miles of new fencing by the end of the year, but faces resistance from more than a hundred border landowners in south Texas and opposition from environmentalists who say the barriers may sever wildlife corridors.
Starting in 1998, members of a newly convened Kumeyaay Border Task Force, sought to turn a threat to their tribal way of life into a catalyst to ensure their survival in a fast changing world.
“We thought, let’s get these people over here who can help rebuild our nation as a whole nation, instead of having pieces on both sides of the border,” said Guassac.
Task force movers began by carrying out a formal census of Kumeyaay members dotted across the north of Baja California, many of whom lived in remote villages and on large communal farms, called “ejidos,” and who lacked formal tribal rolls.
The census process was carried out under the watchful eye of the Mexican authorities, and registered 1,300 tribal members, for whom the task force then obtained Mexican passports to give them mobility.
Following negotiations with U.S. immigration authorities in San Diego, the task force obtained U.S. laser visas for the new passport holders, which allowed members to cross to and from California legally through the Tecate port of entry, and stay for a period of up to six months.
“We wanted to get the artisans and the knowledge keepers to go back forth, and that’s how we got this ball rolling,” said Guassac.
As security has tightened along the line in recent years, visits between settlements on either side of the border have become frequent events, and the process of knowledge sharing between communities has gathered pace, tribal authorities say.
“We don’t know our relatives there as well as we should ... I think it helped reconnecting with our people down there” in Mexico, said Paul Cuero Jr., the chairman of the Campo Band of the Kumeyaay, east of San Diego.
Members on the north side have taught their Mexican kin a traditional gambling game called “peon,” played with dice-like pieces of white and black bone, and are also passing on an intricate cycle of bird songs celebrating the natural world, much of which had been lost in Mexico.
Tribal members from the south side, meanwhile, have been able to teach their Californian neighbors a range of traditional handicrafts including pottery, basket weaving and agricultural techniques, and have also helped coach their neighbors in the complexities of the Kumeyaay language.
“People in Mexico are much more fluent speakers,” said Connolly. “They grew up speaking Kumeyaay at home and didn’t learn Spanish until they went to school, so they are really fluent, so that’s a good resource.”
Now, the tribal authorities would like to explore the possibility of obtaining working visas for some members on the south side, so that they can come and work in the tribe’s four casinos in California which provide revenue and jobs for their bands.
They believe that their patient, determined efforts to overcome the obstacles that tightened border security placed in their path may have lessons for the U.S. government in its dealings with other tribal communities and landowners on the border.
“What we have shown is that people who live along the borders are not the enemies of the government, but can be their valued allies,” said Guassac. “They need to understand that.”
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Eddie Evans