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A non-federally recognized American Indian tribe on Friday defended its recruiting of Hispanic illegal 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.
Kaweah Indian Nation recruits illegal aliens for membership
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-speaking 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.
Freytez said advocates have heard similar stories from people in Kansas, California, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
"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."
Multiple calls by The Associated Press to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior were not immediately returned Friday.
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.
Tribe has recruited more than 10,000 illegal immigrants
"We are not going against the law, we're with the law," said Urbina, who 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 about it without a specific instance.
Pembina Nation Little Shell Tribe has also sold 2,000 memberships
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 was illegal.
Applications cost $150 plus an optional gift to the Universal Service Dedicated to God, which is a nondenominational religious nonprofit, according to its Web site.
Watson said members also can qualify for a driver's license, car registration and tags issued by the tribe that are valid in any state. Watson said the tribe is based in North Dakota.
Pembina museums and border officers have never heard of Pembina Nation Little Shell Tribe
But officials at the Pembina border station, the Pembina County Museum in Cavalier, N.D., and the Pembina City Museum in Pembina, N.D., said they had never heard of the tribe.
In 2003, North Dakota's insurance commissioner ordered a company using the name Little Shell Pembina Band of North America to stop selling insurance. Jim Poolman said the tribe was not licensed in North Dakota and was not registered to sell insurance.
Is this a tribal issue, immigration issue, or consumer fraud?
It was unclear Friday exactly which federal agency would investigate the matter — either as an immigration issue, a consumer fraud issue or an Indian affairs issue.
Counts said ICE officials weren't sure if the matter was in the agency's jurisdiction.
Felici, of the Texas attorney general's office, said he could not comment on the possibility of an investigation by that office.
When asked if the Nebraska attorney general would investigate, spokeswoman Holley Hatt said citizenship and tribal status are typically handled by federal agencies.
"I don't know that this is something that we would certainly investigate," said Cabrera, the spokeswoman from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We would certainly work close with the communities to make sure that they know that this is an immigration scam."
Federal Trade Commission spokesman Mitch Katz said he had not heard of the issue.
"It sounds like it could be something that the FTC could tangentially look at," Katz said.
Cases could be difficult to prosecute because illegal immigrants are hesitant to come forward with complaints, worried that they will be turned over to immigration officials.
"The fear is very valid," Cabrera said.