As the July 29 enforcement date for Arizona’s strict new immigration law nears, Native American tribes are charging that the law was written without considering their unique circumstance and that it will violate their sovereignty and their members’ civil rights.
Despite a request by Gov. Jan Brewer’s office to comply with the new law, Native American tribes will continue to oppose it and seek ways to avoid its implementation, said John Lewis, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, which represents 20 tribes in the state.
“Tribes have jurisdiction within their land, and state law doesn’t apply,” Lewis said. “And the law just doesn’t work in the interests of the American Indian population.”
A resolution passed by the tribal council on June 4 states that the new law would lead to disproportionate stops and detentions for tribal members, violate their sovereignty and negatively impact the tribal economy.
In their resolution, the group says long-accepted standards of tribal life would suddenly be incongruous with the new law.
Enforcement of the law would force many law officers to reach the “reasonable suspicion” of illegal status for a large portion of Native Americans, whose legal presence within the U.S. has never been in question, the resolution states.
The resolution points out that English is a second language for many tribal members. And although each tribe has different laws, members of the tribes have not been required to carry their tribal membership documents, and some don’t possess a birth certificate or proper documents.
Navajo Nation Councilman Delegate Kee Allen Begay, Jr. said Arizona’s new law violates the civil rights of members of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. He said tribal members will be disproportionately targeted because some police might conclude that they are Hispanic.
“In a way, the immigration bill is an attempt to harass Native Americans,” Begay said. “When we are pulled over or stopped we are usually pulled over and asked for our IDs. Sometimes we do not carry those things, and perhaps at that time we will have difficulty proving we are Native American.”
Begay said the new immigration law does nothing positive for Native Americans. He hypothetically asked what non-Native Americans would think of a bill they perceived as targeting them for their ethnic appearance.
“What if we had a law that said whenever a white person is traveling through the Navajo Reservation, we have reasonable suspicion that they’re carrying drugs? Where would the outcry on that be?” Begay asked. “We were here before anyone else, before any white people, and now we’re going to be questioned about being here legally?”
Brewer’s office sent a letter May 24 to the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, asking the commission to cooperate with the state board that offers guidelines to law-enforcement agencies about how to enforce the new immigration law.
Paul Senseman, a spokesman for Brewer, said tribal leaders have been misled when it comes to some of the main points and details of the new law. He said protections against racial profiling were included in the new law specifically to address the concerns that the Inter Tribal Council has raised.
“The resolution appears to be premised on some wrong information about the bill,” Senseman said. “It’s abundantly clear throughout the law that race cannot be used to determine reasonable suspicion.”
Because Native American tribes have sovereign governments, the interplay between state law enforcement and tribal law enforcement relies upon specific agreements between the tribes and other law enforcement agencies, said Larry Scarber, a tribal liaison for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Several tribes maintain relationships that allow local, state or federal law enforcement agencies to cooperate with the tribal police, and work within the reservations. Each tribe has a different agreement with the agencies they cooperate with, Scarber said.
On some reservations, non-tribal police are called only in emergencies. On others, non-tribal police work, communicate and cooperate regularly with tribal law enforcement, Scarber said.
“There are so many variables,” he said. “With some of the tribes, our officers are able to enforce state laws on tribal lands, but the tribes are so different, and the way they choose to exercise their sovereign rights is always different.”
Scarber of DPS said if Arizona’s new immigration law is opposed by the tribes, the law would apply only to non-tribal members on the reservation, or to tribal members when they leave the reservation. He said his agents will apply the law in accordance with the agreements they have with the tribes, and that many of the procedures will have to be developed as the new law goes into effect.
Brewer tasked the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training (AZPOST) board with developing the law enforcement training and procedural guidelines for the immigration law by the end of June.
Lyle Mann, the group’s executive director, said the concerns raised by tribes in Arizona came too late in the development of the training materials and will not be addressed specifically.
“The guidance will be: Go talk to your tribe and decide what you want to do,” he said.
The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona plans to meet with the National Congress of American Indians next week to agree on unified opposition to the new law and explore ways to prevent its implementation on tribal lands, Lewis, director of the council, said.