As border enforcement increased to the east and to the west of the Tohono O'odham Nation in the mid-to-late 1990s, so did the number of people and drugs coming through the area.
"In a sense, we have become hostages in our own nation," tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said this week.
And because of the impact immigration has on them, tribal nations need to be included in the conversation about reform, he told a group of nearly 200 people who gathered at the Pascua Yaqui Nation on Tuesday to talk about how immigration affects the lives of Native Americans. The event was part of a national tour of a group of nuns to support immigration reform.
The Senate is considering a bill that would offer a path to legal status to about 11 million people living in the country illegally, increase border security and enhance worker programs for high and lower-skilled jobs.
Any immigration reform has to address indigenous people, said Jose Matu, program director of Indigenous Alliance without Borders. That's because many of the migrants coming through without permission are indigenous from southern Mexico and Central America, he said.
The group works to document human-rights abuses and educate the community about indigenous rights.
The Tohono O'odham Nation is 2.8 million square acres in size, Norris said, the size of Connecticut. It shares about 75 miles of border with Mexico.
Over time, the impact of immigration on the reservation has been mostly negative, he said.
When the number of those crossing through tribal land was 200 to 250 people per month, Norris said residents didn't hesitate to provide food and shelter to the weary travelers; they knew the following morning they would rise and continue their journey north.
He emphasized the Tohono O'odham have always been compassionate of the plight of Mexican nationals. But as the number of people crossing the desert increased - reaching at one point 1,500 people a day - so did the smuggling of drugs. Residents had to change their way of thinking, they were forced to be more cautious.
"Elders became hostage in their own home," he said.
In 2012, Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly 9,000 people in the Tohono O'odham Nation, Norris said. In 2013, they've apprehended close to 11,000.
So far this year, agents also have seized almost 130,000 pounds of marijuana, about 30,000 more than last year, he said.
Casa Grande, the Border Patrol station that patrols much of the area in and near the reservation, is responsible for about 30 percent of apprehensions.
In 2009, Norris discussed a drug smuggling problem on tribal lands and sought assistance from non-tribal agencies, Star archives show.
By that point, the percentage of suspected drug smugglers arrested by Tohono O'odham police who were tribal members had increased 60-fold over two decades.
The security of Indian reservations is a key part of the overall integrity of U.S. borders, a Government Accountability Office report released in April said.
"The nature and complexity of Indian reservations on or near the border, along with the vulnerabilities and threats they face, highlight the importance of DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and tribes working together to enhance border security," the authors wrote.
The Border Patrol already coordinates and shares information with tribes, but "these efforts could be strengthened," the report said.
Beyond border security, about 1,500 Tohono O'odham live in Mexico and there are close to 4,000 more who may have some lineage that would give them citizenship, Norris said.
And many tribal members are major employers contributing to the economy, he said. "We have to be given an opportunity to make sure the sovereign tribal nations are heard."
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo