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Border wall protester and supporters rally as religious freedom defense is denied

This week activists held a rally in support of an Indigenous protester facing federal charges over blocking border wall construction last year. The incident took place near Quitobaquito Springs, a sacred freshwater source at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. 

It’s been more than a year since Amber Ortega was arrested for physically blocking machinery near Quitobaquito. 

Speaking over loud traffic in downtown Tucson, she told about a dozen supporters that since she was a kid, she was always told to protect the land she came from.  

"We are keepers of this land, we are made from this land, we are to speak for this land, we are to live for this land," she said. 

Ortega was in court facing misdemeanor charges including interfering with an agency function and violating a closure order earlier this month, and testified that her religious beliefs and culture as a Hia C-ed O’odham woman compelled her to defend the spring that day, and her actions should be protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But weeks later, the judge ruled that her religious beliefs could not be used to determine her guilt or innocence. 

Isabel Garcia with the Tucson rights groups Coalición de Derechos Humanos said she was angry, seeing the Biden administration prosecute a case over the border wall.

"It’s pretty shameful that we are here facing the court that spent what, hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute you, under the Biden administration that we all supported," she said.  

Federal Magistrate Judge Leslie Bowman is expected to issue a final verdict by Dec. 15.


Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.