“Are you an American citizen?”
It’s a question motorists in the southern parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—the states that share a border with Mexico—are becoming accustomed to answering.
It’s also a question many are finding increasingly irksome. The question typically comes from Border Patrol agents. But it might surprise readers from other parts of the country to learn the question comes not only when you’re crossing the border, but also when you’re driving near it.
Case in point, on a recent trip from Southern California to Phoenix, Arizona, and back, I had to stop at inspection stations on six separate occasions. Not once did I cross the border into Mexico. I was simply traveling from one state to the next, yet I was asked questions about my citizenry, the purpose of my visit, etc. (Because I will be discussing the color of people’s skin, I feel compelled to tell you I am white. My wife, however, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.)
The differences between the border states are becoming more pronounced every day. With the passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s so-called anti-immigration bill, law enforcement officials will be authorized to inquire about one’s immigration status, making the status of one’s citizenship, i.e. the color of one’s skin, a police matter.
But if you think Mexican-American citizens are tired of this question, imagine how Native Americans feel.
At an Indian casino and resort south of Phoenix, I spoke with a hotel employee (let’s call him Junior) who had a harrowing experience while driving to San Diego—a trip he won’t be making again anytime soon.
During a routine stop at an inspection station, Junior was removed from his vehicle and placed in handcuffs. Junior, who is a full-blooded Pima Indian, and never travels without his Certificate of Indian Blood, apparently didn’t show the Border Patrol agents the proper respect when answering their questions. As anyone who has endured less than sterling “customer service” from a TSA representative at the airport can attest, government functionaries can be a bit over-zealous when it comes to matters of security.
But it’s not difficult to imagine the outrage an Indian might feel in this situation. After all the shitty treatment they’ve collectively endured at the hands of the federal government, after all the massacres, broken treaties, forced relocations, now people like Junior have to be mindful of their tone of voice when asked “Are you an American citizen?” from a Caucasian/Latin/African/Filipino American Border Patrol agent whose family has been in this country for a handful of generations. It’s like stopping an ambulance to ask the patient strapped to a gurney if they’re wearing a seatbelt.
“I’m going to need to see your papers,” joked a former student of mine when we went to see him in Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation.
A trickster by nature, “Ricky” was a challenging student. His allergy to upper-case letters and affinity for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which he professed to have read 27 times and whose idiom he liberally borrowed from, made evaluating his student writing an adventure. In a personal essay in which he was tasked with writing about an experience that changed him, he described the time he transformed into a wolf.
In response to Ricky’s joke, my wife quipped that she was Navajo. A joke she’d made several times as we passed through Pima, Maricopa, and Apache country. My wife and I received a tremendous amount of flack via Facebook for breaking the boycott against the anti-immigration law in Arizona. But we were only traveling through Arizona on our way to some place else, and the two nights we spent in Arizona we stayed on tribal lands. By visiting various reservations, we spent most of our time in Arizona in a place where Arizona has dubious authority. Physically we were inside of Arizona, but legally, politically, and spiritually we were somewhere else.
“Sharing dark skin doesn’t make two men brothers,” writes Sherman Alexie in his story “Indian Education.” Alexie, an Indian from the Spokane Reservation in Washington state (who also wrote a short story that inspired the title of this dispatch) espouses a fatalistic view of anything that falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s a view Ricky shares with good reason. The Navajo reservation which spans parts Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, is both the largest and poorest in the country. The Navajos have a new casino, but the reservation is so vast and its citizens so underprivileged, it will take several decades to effect the kind of impact casino revenues create for much smaller tribes.
But casino money is making many of Arizona’s tribe’s players in the state’s political machinery. Indians, the original majority-minority, are sensitive to discriminatory practices handed down from the government. And if Governor Brewer is expecting cooperation from Arizona’s sovereign nations, she can think again.
One thing that struck me during my conversation with Junior, and has stayed with me since I’ve returned home, was the way he referred to leaving his reservation as a “crossing.” He said it the same way you or I would talk about leaving the United States.
For him, the reservation’s border was more than an idea, an emblem of his tribe’s sovereign nation status, but a boundary beyond which he felt threatened, even menaced by the people on the other side. It’s a glimpse at how conservative Americans must feel about Mexico, or how progressive-thinking people are already starting to feel about Arizona.
The militarization of America’s border with Mexico is underway. It’s not just casinos that are being built in the deserts of the Southwest, but immigration inspection stations. Our relationship with the border is being interpreted for us. Don’t leave the outcome up to chance.