WICHITA, Kan. – Like other area ministers, the Rev. Francisco Aguirre is trying to quell the fears of immigrants in his church who bought Kaweah Indian Nation memberships believing they would then be U.S. citizens.
Aguirre, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Redempcion in Wichita, became a paid member himself.
Aguirre is a legal U.S. resident, but he's not an American citizen. He said he bought tribal memberships for himself, his family and members of his congregation, anticipating they would automatically make them U.S. citizens. He said about 30 people in his congregation paid $80 each for memberships.
But the federal government does not recognize the Kaweah Indian Nation as an American Indian tribe. The tribal memberships did not make the buyers U.S. citizens, which would allow them to get driver's licenses, Social Security cards and other documents.
Last week, government agents seized thousands of documents from the Wichita offices of Kaweah Indian Nation. Prosecutors allege the group recruited thousands of immigrants nationwide with false promises.
Pastors said immigrants are now worried that agents have found their names and addresses among the papers taken from the tribe's offices. Some are so worried that they planned to move, the ministers said.
"Somebody just tipped their hopes very high, and now it seems to be not really true," the Rev. Abraham Arevalo, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Nueva Vida, said Tuesday. "It is very, very hard for a lot of them — more hard than a lot of people can imagine."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson said last week that prosecutors would look at prosecutions of illegal immigrants on a case-by-case basis, noting many had no criminal intent when they tried to obtain the documents.
Agents have charged Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, with attempting to defraud the federal government, harboring illegal immigrants and possession of false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States.
Webber had not yet retained an attorney, and his family declined to comment Tuesday. No one answered the phone at tribal headquarters.
In an interview the week before the raid, the tribe's spokesman, Manuel Urbina, denied that the tribe told illegal immigrants that membership would protect them from being deported. Buyers were told only that their memberships gave them identification and certificates they can show officials as proof they are tribe members, he said. Memberships cost $50 for individuals and $100 for families.
Urbina also said the Kaweah Indian Nation was recognized as a tribe by the state of Nevada — a claim that the Nevada Indian Commission later said was untrue. Nevada has no separate state recognition process for American Indian tribes.