Get a government issued photo ID and your citizenship from an Indian Tribe?
Contact Manuel Urbina, the chief of the Kaweah Indian Nation in Nebraska for more details.
OMAHA, Neb. - For prices starting at $50, two nonfederally recognized Indian tribes are offering membership to thousands of illegal immigrants, claiming they can achieve legal status by joining the groups.
But immigration authorities insist becoming a tribe member gives no protection against being deported. And immigration advocates condemn the practice, saying it defrauds immigrants of money and gives them false hope.
"You can't just decide to become a member of a tribe and all of a sudden legalize your status," said Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In Nebraska, some people reported paying up to $1,200 to join the Kaweah Indian Nation, which became the target of a federal investigation after complaints about the tribe arose in at least five states.
Manuel Urbina, the tribe's high chief, acknowleged his group has sold at least 10,000 tribal memberships to illegal immigrants for about $50 each.
"We are not going against the law, we're with the law," he said, claiming membership papers can help illegal immigrants avoid being detained by authorities if they are asked for documents.
A Florida man has made similar sales pitches to immigrants on behalf of a North Dakota-based tribe.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs denied the Kaweah group recognition in 1985 because it was not a real tribe. A Kaweah tribe did exist once, but is unrelated to the one that applied for recognition.
John Dossett, a lawyer for the Washington-based National Congress of American Indians, called the group "just a total sham" and compared its membership offer to spam e-mail solicitations.
Angel Freytez of the Nebraska Mexican-American Commission said advocates have fielded complaints about the group from immigrants in Kansas, California, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Tim Counts confirmed that documents from the tribe offer no protection "from the consequences of being in a country illegally. It won't work."
Many immigrants seeking legal status are not sure what to believe, but some are willing to try joining a tribe. In Kansas, a Guatemalan man and his wife from El Salvador were indicted for allegedly trying to get U.S. passports and Social Security cards by claiming to be members of the Kaweah tribe.
The U.S. attorney in Kansas is investigating fraud allegations against the Wichita-based tribe. But the case could be difficult to prosecute because illegal immigrants are hesitant to come forward out of fear they could be turned over to immigration officials.
A Florida man said he sold about 2,000 memberships to the North Dakota-based Pembina Nation Little Shell tribe through a Web site. Each cost $150.
Audie Watson, president of the Tamarac, Fla.-based religious nonprofit Universal Service Dedicated to God, said his tribe has a waiting list of prospective members. But he admitted about 500 people have asked for refunds because of "adverse publicity."
The Little Shell tribe asked for federal recognition in North Dakota in the 1970s, but tribal representatives never completed the application process, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 2006, the Florida attorney general's office heard complaints about the tribe. But a spokeswoman for the attorney general said authorities were unable to find victims or substantiate the allegations.
Watson said no legal authority has told him that selling memberships is illegal. As for those who say it's a scam, he said: "If they want to pass judgment, I can't help that."
(This version SUBS 12th graf bgng 'Many immigrants...' to correct that suspects indicted in Kansas were from Guatemala and El Salvador, not Mexico.)
Immigrants pay to join tribes
OMAHA, Neb. - A non-federally recognized American Indian tribe on Friday defended its recruiting of Hispanic undocumented immigrants to the tribe under the promise that joining would keep the immigrants from being deported.
But advocates and federal officials condemned the practice as a scam, saying the group was defrauding people desperate to stay in the country of hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars while giving them false hope.
The complaints are reaching federal officials through community groups in several states.
In Texas, the attorney general's office has received five complaints from people who say they were recruited to join the Kaweah Indian Nation, Paco Felici, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Friday.
In Nebraska, the Mexican-American Commission posted a warning on its Web site and alerted churches and Spanish-language media after illegal immigrants in four Nebraska cities were approached with offers of membership to the tribe as a way to gain legal status in the United States, commission spokesman Angel Freytez said.
"Anyone who is in the country illegally is not protected from the consequences of being in a country illegally by any document from this tribe," said Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It won't work."
Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said even if illegal immigrants were adopted into federally recognized tribes, it wouldn't be enough to establish legal residency.
For example, American Indians born in Canada must prove they have at least a 50 percent blood lineage to an American Indian tribe in order to establish legal residency here.
"You can't just decide to become a member of a tribe and all of a sudden legalize your status," Cabrera said.
But Manuel Urbina, high chief for Kaweah Indian Nation based in Wichita, Kan., said tribal membership documents have been enough to get illegal immigrants out of trouble when approached by federal agents.
"We are not going against the law, we're with the law," said Urbina.
He said the tribe had recruited more than 10,000 illegal immigrants to the tribe.
He said selling entrance into the tribe for about $50 per person was "a godly thing."
But Freytez said some people reported paying much more to the tribe - up to $1,200.
Urbina said the tribe never charged that much.
Counts, the ICE spokesman, said he could not comment without about a specific instance.
A Florida man selling memberships to another purported tribe through a Web site said he had sold about 2,000 memberships and has a waiting list, but about 500 people have asked for refunds because of "adverse publicity."
"When they happen to be in a situation on a street or in a bus station, where they've gotten approached, yes they've gotten out of (trouble)," said Audie Watson of Tamarac, Fla.
Watson said no court or legal authority has told him that selling membership into the Pembina Nation Little Shell, based in North Dakota, was illegal.
Applications cost $150 plus an optional gift to the Universal Service Dedicated to God, which is a non-denominational religious non-profit, according to its Web site.