Saguaro cactuses were cut down in Organ Pipe Cactus Monument, where a wall is being built along the Arizona-Mexico border.
LUKEVILLE, Ariz. — Cut down a saguaro cactus in Arizona and you can face years in prison. But over the past several weeks, work crews have been destroying dozens of the protected cactuses, which can live for 200 years, to build a new wall on the southwestern border.
The remains of chopped-up saguaros are now visible along a swath of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, part of what Native American leaders warn is a range of environmental and archaeological threats posed by the Trump administration’s scramble to build the wall.
Work along the border, according to tribal leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation who live on both sides of the border, is blasting ancient burial sites and siphoning an aquifer that feeds a desert oasis where human beings have slaked their thirst for 16,000 years.
The outcry by tribal citizens reflects the latest phase in the quarreling over the border wall, after federal courts allowed the Trump administration to speed construction by waiving dozens of laws, including measures protecting endangered species and Native American burial sites. Federal officials have cited President Trump’s national emergency declaration in 2019, aimed at curbing unauthorized immigration, as justification for the waivers.
Dynamite blasts are now echoing throughout lands assigned the highest degree of permanent protection by Congress as workers lay the foundation for the wall. To mix concrete, crews are drawing water from a spring near where ancient bone fragments were unearthed last year.
The work is occurring at sites inside the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt established by proclamation in 1937. The area has been designated by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, as an internationally protected biosphere reserve.
“To state it clearly, we are enduring crimes against humanity,” said Verlon M. José, the governor of the Tohono O’odham in northern Mexico and a former vice chairman of the tribal nation on the American side of the border.
“Tell me where your grandparents are buried and let me dynamite their graves,” said Mr. José, emphasizing how visceral an issue the blasting has become among O’odham-speaking peoples. “This wall is already putting a scar across our heart.”
The Border Patrol, which is overseeing the wall construction within the national monument, is hitting back at such assessments. John Mennell, a Border Patrol spokesman, disputed the claims by O’odham leaders and said that “no biological, cultural or historical sites were identified within the project area.”
At a congressional hearing about these activities on Wednesday, Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona, compared the blasting at sites held to be sacred by Native Americans to the war crime of destroying sacred cultural sites during international conflicts.
He also accused federal authorities of “gaslighting” by contending that the construction work was aimed at preserving lands near the border. The government has suggested that building a wall would prevent migrants from trampling over the desert in vehicles and on foot.
The White House and Department of Homeland Security did not send representatives to the hearing. On the same day as the hearing, the Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers invited reporters to view a controlled detonation during border wall construction.
After grievances by O’odham citizens intensified in recent months, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat representing southern Arizona, homed in on the use of explosives at an area of the monument that many O’odham consider a sacred Indigenous site.
Citing O’odham leaders, Mr. Grijalva said in a video posted on Twitter that the site, known as Memorial Hill, “is the resting place primarily for Apache warriors that had been involved in battle with the O’odham, and then the O’odham people in a respectful way laid them to rest on Monument Hill.”
Objections to the border wall are now multiplying from the some 28,000 enrolled members of Tohono O’odham (pronounced To-HO-no AW-tham). Many live in the tribal nation’s reservation in Arizona, which is near Organ Pipe, while about 2,000 others live in an adjacent area of northern Mexico.