El Paso Times
May 14, 2008
by Brandi Grissom
Proposed border fencing in El Paso could cut off the Tiguas' access to parts of the Rio Grande the tribe has used for centuries to conduct sacred ceremonies.
"It is an infringement on our First Amendment right of freedom of religion," Tigua War Captain Rick Quezada said this week.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working to build 670 miles of fencing along the border by the end of this year. That plan includes about 57 miles of barrier starting at Socorro and extending east of the Fabens port of entry.
Federal officials said they were meeting with the tribe and many other communities in Texas where opposition to the fence is widespread.
The Tiguas have been conducting sacred ceremonies in the Rio Grande for more than 300 years, Quezada said. It's where the tribe starts its calendar year, inducting elected tribal officers, and where they conduct naming ceremonies.
They use a section of the river that stretches from the Ascarate area to Fabens.
The Department of Homeland Security's fence plans would cut off the tribe's access to the river.
"That's one of the biggest concerns," Quezada said, "our continuous practice of our culture and our religion."
Typically, governmental agencies are required to respect customs, traditions and ceremonies of Native Americans under the federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Tigua objections to a proposed Lee Treviño extension from North Loop to the C(c)sar Chávez Border Highway that would have encroached on sacred land sent El Paso city leaders looking for alternatives to solve traffic problems in that area.
Last month, though, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would use waivers to sidestep about 30 laws and ensure the fencing could be completed this year. One of the laws Chertoff said he would ignore is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
That announcement was one reason U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, signed onto a legal brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the waivers.
Reyes and 13 other congressmen submitted a brief in a legal challenge filed in March against Chertoff by the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. They want the court to rule unconstitutional the law that allowed Chertoff to circumvent other laws to get the fence built.
"It is irresponsible for DHS to sidestep more than 30 federal laws, including those designed to protect Native Americans' access to sacred sites," Reyes said.
He said he has met with tribal Gov. Frank Paiz and is urging Homeland Security to respect the Tiguas' ceremonial customs.
Ramiro Cordero, a spokes man for the U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector, said federal officials were working with the tribe to find a solution to their concerns.
"We've been meeting with the Tiguas just like we've been meeting with other groups," he said.
And there are many other groups on the Texas border that have concerns over the fence and possible damage it could do to the environment, to local economies and to relationships with friends, family and neighbors in Mexico.
In El Paso, both the City Council and the County Commissioners Court have passed resolutions opposing the fence.
The manager of Rio Bosque Wetlands Park has said the fence could undo nearly a decade of work to restore habitat and wildlife in the area.
The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders from across the border, has repeatedly asked Homeland Security to work more closely with local governments and to consider alternatives to the massive barrier.
Homeland Security officials and Chertoff maintain that they have discussed the fence plans with border communities and that their concerns will be taken into account. But, they have said, the fence must be built to ensure national security and curb illegal immigration.
El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar said federal officials haven't done enough talking with border residents and are plowing forward with a costly plan that will not stop the flow of undocumented workers or drug and human traffickers into the United States.
"We want to be consulted," she said. "We want to have a voice, and we want meaningful solutions."