Nellie Jo David was holding forth in the shadow of the border wall. Tucked under her arm was a sign listing the dozens of federal laws that were waived during the building of the structure. With a megaphone gripped tight in her left hand, the 36-year-old read them off one by one. A crowd of protesters listened in. The sun, pouring through the steel slats of the towering 30-foot-tall partition, cast long shadows in the Arizona desert. David explained how the wall’s expansion would drain the lands of precious water and its floodlights would blot out the stars.
“We need to stop this desecration,” she said, before leading the protesters in a chant: “Water not walls.”
David’s boots were dusted with dirt. Behind her were more steel slats, stacked and ready to go. Behind the slats was a giant saguaro cactus, laid out on the ground. Gashes split the plant into chunks. For David’s people, the O’odham, the saguaros are not just sacred, they are a people unto themselves. This particular specimen had been healthy, likely to live for decades more, had it not been sacrificed for the wall. In O’odham, the word for saguaro is Ha:sañ. Everywhere, in the space where David spoke, were butchered Ha:sañ remains.
It was November 9, 2019, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. David and the protesters gathered at noon, at the visitor center of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The monument is a vast stretch of public land buttressing the U.S.- Mexico border, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. In recent months, it has also become the site of one of the most politically charged construction projects of the Trump era. In building the wall along the southern edge of Organ Pipe, the U.S. government is draining a desert aquifer in service of a political vanity project, cutting a protected ecosystem in two, and adding a new chapter to its long and shameful history of disregard for native peoples, especially the O’odham.
These intersecting concerns were reflected in the diverse coalition of individuals, numbering in the hundreds, who came out to protest the wall’s construction. Dressed in high-top Vans and a black T-shirt featuring a prowling jaguar — one of the many species whose migratory habits are imperiled by the project — Laiken Jordahl organized the crowd. The young borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit leading the legal fight against the Trump administration’s border wall expansion, has been a major force in drawing attention to the Organ Pipe project. A former employee at the national monument himself, Jordahl has filed regular video dispatches documenting the environmental devastation accompanying the wall’s construction.
Photos: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
That imagery, and the danger it reflects for Organ Pipe’s fragile ecosystem, drew environmentally-minded protesters into the desert, including at least one who was dressed as a turtle — a nod to the existential threat the wall poses the rare Sonoyta mud turtle. Southern Arizona’s humanitarian aid community also turned out for the event. For them, the past two years have been one long, continuing story of criminalization and resistance. Humanitarian aid providers in southwest Arizona base their work out of the unincorporated community of Ajo, the lone population center among a patchwork of federally administered lands, including Organ Pipe, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Barry Goldwater bombing range, which together form one of the western hemisphere’s deadliest stretches for migrants trekking north.
The U.S. government is draining a desert aquifer in service of a political vanity project.
“It’s a tough time now,” Mimi Phillips, a longtime volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans, told me, as she held up a banner in the Organ Pipe parking lot.
For generations, people in Ajo have provided sustenance to desert travelers out of a sense of moral obligation, regardless of nationality. In recent years, that practice has come under attack. In 2014, humanitarian aid groups started pushing deeper into the public lands around Ajo, leaving jugs of water on migrant trails and recovering a record number of human remains in the desert. Following Trump’s inauguration, federal law enforcement began cracking down, charging nine volunteers at the faith-based organization No More Deaths with federal crimes for their aid work. Phillips herself was targeted in a months-long Border Patrol investigation that culminated in the arrest of Scott Warren. The 35-year-old geographer was arrested at a humanitarian aid station in the company of two young undocumented migrants from Central America in 2018, and hit with federal harboring and conspiracy charges for providing the pair with food, water, and a place to sleep over three days. (Warren was found not guilty on Wednesday.)
As the protesters gathered in the Organ Pipe parking lot, Warren’s retrial in the case was just days away. The construction of the wall, the targeting of humanitarian aid providers, and the government’s general assault on borderland communities, had taken its toll among people of conscience in Ajo, Phillips explained. “We’re all traumatized.”
At the center of the border wall protest were the O’odham. The word O’odham means people, and the largest and most well-known of the O’odham bands are the Tohono O’odham, the desert people. But within the pocket of southwest Arizona directly impacted by the border wall is another band of O’odham whose post-colonial history has been a constant fight against erasure. For the Hia C-ed O’odham, the Sand People, the areas of Organ Pipe where the Trump administration is building its wall are sacred.
“We are still here,” Amber Ortega, a Hia C-ed demonstrator, told the crowd. “We are not often spoken of in the media. We are in very few textbooks, but we exist, and this is our home.”
At 33 years old, Ortega came of age during a critical period in the borderlands. She grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation, the O’odham reservation east of Ajo. In the mid-1990s, life on the nation was dramatically altered. A new national border enforcement strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence drove migration flows away from large border cities and into remote desert areas. It meant fewer migrants passing through places like El Paso and San Diego, and more migrants passing through the nation — many more. “We knew of people walking past,” Ortega told me. It would have been impossible to ignore. Former Tohono O’odham chair Ned Norris Jr. once estimated that before Prevention Through Deterrence, 200 or so migrants crossed the nation each month; once the strategy went into effect, that figure ballooned to 1,500 a day.
With the influx of people came an explosion in the number of deaths. The Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner went from seeing 15 to 20 migrant deaths a year in southern Arizona to more than 160. Ortega remembers how her family would use phone trees to organize their response to travelers in need. An uncle might call reporting that a group had showed up on his property looking for food and water. Word would spread among relatives, and soon meals would be prepared and water would be provided. “It was innocent,” Ortega said.
“Growing up, we reached a point where we didn’t know we had rights.”
The innocence didn’t last. In relatively short order, O’odham lands became occupied territory, crawling with Border Patrol agents, penned in with vehicle checkpoints and monitored 24/7 with the latest in surveillance technology. As the interdiction industry put down roots, an economy for getting past the border guards ballooned. On the economically struggling Tohono O’odham Nation, the allure of potentially easy money trapped more than a few people in the cycle of arrest, felony conviction, and incarceration that plays out in communities across the country, including those far from the border. In 2009, the Associated Press reported a sixtyfold increase in the “percentage of suspected drug smugglers arrested by Tohono O’odham police who are tribal members” over the preceding two decades. “The jump is due to a surge in recruiting that stems from the growing number of Border Patrol agents on the Tohono O’Odham Nation and the recent construction of steel vehicle barriers that line most of the 75 miles of international border,” the AP noted.
More enforcement meant more illicit activity, which required more enforcement — it was self-sustaining cycle with real-life consequences for the O’odham people. “Growing up, we reached a point where we didn’t know we had rights,” Ortega explained.
Photos: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
For Nellie Jo David, who was born and raised in Ajo, the reordering of life in the desert was inextricably linked to the national trauma of September 11, 2001. She was 18 years old, a freshman at Arizona State University, living away from home for the first time. “Everything changed,” she told me. “Home was never the same.” July Fourth became surreal, she said, celebrations of freedom in a land of checkpoints and roving patrols that ran roughshod over her people’s constitutional rights. “In what weird universe is this freedom?” she asked herself. David earned her degree and made up her mind to go into law. Her objective was clear. “I went to law school to try to stop the militarization in Ajo,” she said. It was a lofty goal, she acknowledged, “but this is my hometown.”
David’s college years coincided with a dark and foreshadowing period for immigrants in Arizona: the reign of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. A precursor to Donald Trump, Arpaio reveled in making punishment of undocumented people a public spectacle and capitalized on a theater of cruelty as a tool for holding onto his own political power; he would later be convicted of criminal contempt. For David, immigrant rights and the demilitarization of O’odham lands were clearly intertwined struggles. But as she soon learned, making those connections resonate to the broader public was not easy. This became particularly true with the election of Barack Obama. “We’ve been protesting, calling it out since Bush, but then people stopped paying attention,” she said. “They thought everything was fine. But we got checkpoints. We got more Border Patrol. We got more everything under the Obama administration.”
“Within our own people we have to fight a battle of recognition.”
“I think it was scarier times because it felt like such little hope,” David added. “It seemed like people didn’t care.” If there’s a silver lining to the current administration, David said, it’s that the period of willful ignorance seems to be lifting. “We can finally talk about the militarization of the border,” she said. The challenge now, she explained, is getting would-be allies outraged at the current administration to “recognize that we’ve been militarized before Trump.”
In Ajo, where the population hovers around 3,000 people in the off-summer months, the political division that’s gripped the country has manifested in complicated ways, David explained. “There’s Border Patrol in activist families, or there’s cartel members within families,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody and because of that, it’s polarized. My mom has experiences of people at work being bigots. Within families, I know brothers and sisters that don’t talk to each other because one supports Trump and the other is like, ‘I can’t believe you would put children in jail,’ and so it’s like that. Because of the polarization of the nation and between the party systems, it’s like that on a family level, between us, and it makes things all the more complicated because we are willing to stand up, but are we willing to lose family members over this?”
There are divisions within the O’odham as well. David faults tribal leadership, in particular, for not taking a harder stand against the border wall construction on Organ Pipe. “There’s a lot of frustration that our tribal administration, as a whole, hasn’t taken enough action,” she explained. The problem stems from the fact that challenging the federal government means challenging the entity that controls the purse strings for the nation, David argued. “All this land on Organ Pipe is Hia C-ed land. Tohono O’odham, which we’re under the umbrella of, they forget we exist,” she said. “Within our own people we have to fight a battle of recognition.”
David was sitting on the pile of border wall slats as she spoke, just a few steps from where she had addressed the crowd of protesters moments earlier. The uprooted saguaro lay dead at her feet as she reflected on the life she’s lived — a life defined in large part by the government’s militarization of her people’s lands. “It’s been crazy path that I never even imagined,” she said. “It’s like a scary movie that never ends.”
As the crowd cleared out, David, Ortega, and handful of friends climbed into the back of a pickup truck and drove down the rutted dirt road to Quitobaquito Springs.
The only viable source of water in a vast expanse of desert, Quitobaquito has been a source of life for the Hia C-ed going back centuries. The pumping of water from the ground to mix concrete for the border wall is a direct threat to its continued existence, and thus a threat to all of the forms of life that rely on the springs for survival. There’s a spiritual threat as well: Quitobaquito was physically inhabited by the Hia C-ed until the late 1950s, when a Park Service pressure campaign succeeded in securing ownership of the springs from its indigenous inhabitants. The history of Hia C-ed burials and gravesites there is well-documented. “Just feet from the border,” David said. “A lot of them are our relatives.”
The springs form a tranquil pool surrounded by trees. David and others found a grassy spot on the water’s edge. Dusk was approaching and the oasis was bathed in golden light. Victor Garcia, a 28-year-old half Tohono, half Hia C-ed O’odham resident of Ajo, filled a handmade gourd with spring water and passed it around. David led the others in a song. “We’re water protectors — all of us,” she said, as the ceremony concluded. “Southwest water protectors.”
The group returned to their pickup and climbed in back. The sun sank and darkness fell as they rumbled past the wall. The headlights of parked cars appeared up ahead: multiple Border Patrol vehicles on the road.
“We’re water protectors — all of us.”
A few staffers with the Center for Biological Diversity had been first to arrive to the scene. The Border Patrol had detained a group of migrants just beyond the border wall construction site — nine people in total, including three little girls and a baby no more than 8 months old. The girls were all crying when they pulled up, Randy Serraglio, the Center for Biological Diversity’s southwest conservation advocate, told me. He asked the two families where they were from. Ecuador, they told him. “They were really scared,” Serraglio recalled. The activists gave the migrants a cellphone. One woman called her husband, another called her mother. David and the other Hia C-ed demonstrators arrived soon after. They gave the children cornbread and grapes and learned that they were asylum-seekers, meaning they had been hoping to get caught; with official ports of entry effectively closed to asylum-seekers, crossing between ports is a gamble families take every day along the border.
Hours earlier, hundreds of people had come through this area in protest. The atmosphere, with several protesters dressed in costumes, at times had a carnival feel. Now, in the darkness, the border had returned to its normal state: desperate families turning themselves in to armed men in green uniforms. The activists watched in silence as the Ecuadorians were processed. A tall, muscular agent held a tiny child’s backpack in his hand. One of the little girls held tight to a gallon water jug. Over the radio, the agents were warned that the activists in their midst represented the more radicalized elements from the day’s protest, and if they wanted to give them some “pushback,” they could. “He didn’t know we were standing there listening,” Serraglio said.
The agents wrapped up their paperwork and directed the families to an awaiting van. The kids, before being loaded up, ran to David and the other activists and hugged them one by one. “Thank you,” one of the girls told David in Spanish. Back at the truck, David stood under the stars, processing what had just happened. A pair of Border Patrol agents, wearing flat black helmets, roared by on ATVs, kicking up dust. “Border Patrol up to what they always do,” David said, as the agents disappeared into the darkness. “No good,” she said, before climbing back into the truck.