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.
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.
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.
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, two Mexicans 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.