WICHITA, Kan. – Investigators have made the first two arrests in an ongoing, multistate probe into whether a Wichita-based American Indian tribe was recruiting illegal immigrants by promising them tribal membership would protect them.
"There have been complaints in several states of illegal immigrants being recruited to join a non-federally recognized Indian tribe under the promise that it would keep them from being deported," U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said in a news release issued Monday. "Purchasing a membership in an Indian tribe is not a path to U.S. citizenship."
Mexican nationals Angel Zamora, 38, and Eduviges del Carmen Zamora, 44, were scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on an indictment charging them with immigration-related offenses. The U.S. Attorney's Office could not immediately clarify the defendants' relationship.
Both are charged with making a false claim of U.S. citizenship, making a false statement on an application for a Social Security card, making a false statement on a passport application, and one count of possessing a false document with intent to defraud the United States.
The indictment does not specifically link them to the government's investigation of the Kaweah Indian Nation, which is not federally recognized.
But Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, confirmed Monday that those two cases were related to the much bigger investigation into complaints about Kaweah membership being sold to illegal immigrants who believe the tribal papers will exempt them from deportation.
"That tribe is part of this investigation. I can't be more specific than that, because the investigation is ongoing," Cross said.
Malcolm Webber, one of the Kaweah tribal leaders, declined to talk about the investigation — calling it "classified" — when reached at his Wichita home Monday.
"We are aware of everything. We are the ones that did it. I can't give you anything," Webber said before hanging up when contacted by The Associated Press.
On Friday, the tribe defended its recruiting of Hispanic illegal immigrants — a practice that has led to complaints in Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, California, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
In Nebraska, the Mexican-American Commission posted a warning on its Web site and alerted churches about an "Indian citizenship scam" after illegal immigrants in four Nebraska cities were approached with membership offers as a way to gain legal U.S. status.
Leaders of the Kaweah last week defended the offer to The World-Herald of Omaha, Neb., telling the newspaper that American Indians predate the border that separates the United States from Mexico. The leaders claimed that by birthright, immigrants can enroll as tribe members.
Manuel Urbina, high chief for the Kaweah Indian Nation, said Friday that tribal membership documents have been enough to get illegal immigrants out of trouble when approached by federal agents.
The tribe had recruited more than 10,000 illegal immigrants, he said.