Texas goes after fake Indian tribe’s alleged immigration scheme

by Lyn Brezosky
Harlingen, Texas (AP/ICC) 8-07
An alleged tribe not recognized by the federal government sold memberships to illegal immigrants in a fraudulent scheme that promised protection from U.S. immigration laws, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said during late August.

Abbott’s office, which announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc., of Wichita, Kan., said the group took up to $400 each from an unknown number of immigrants for the guarantee of a Social Security number and a “Certificate of Citizenship” card that brought protection from deportation proceedings. The tribe told immigrants the card also would be good for U.S. citizenship if the Kaweah nation gained federal recognition as an Indian tribe, Abbott said. The lawsuit seeks to stop what he alleges to be misleading recruitment and calls for a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“In reality, the card is legally ineffective and does not alter the purchaser’s immigration status,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s lawsuit came amid reports that the tribe had complaints against it from at least five states and was being investigated by a U.S. attorney in Kansas.

During late August, the tribe’s secretary, a woman from El Salvador, and her Guatemalan husband were charged in Wichita with federal immigration violations in what prosecutors called a multistate immigration scam.

In Nebraska, some people reported paying up to $1,200 to join the tribe, and Angel Freytez of the Nebraska Mexican-American Commission said advocates have fielded complaints about the group.

Immigration authorities have said becoming a member of a tribe gives no protection against deportation. A lawyer for the Washington-based National Congress of American Indians has called the Kaweahs “a total sham.”

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.

Defendants in the Texas lawsuit include Malcolm L. “Grand Chief Thunderbird IV” Webber of Wichita; the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc.; and Ralph Benny Tipton of San Antonio and Victor Ramirez of Edinburg, Texas, both accused of promoting the tribe’s membership benefits.

The Kaweah Indian Nation said it was unaware of the lawsuit until contacted by The Associated Press at the tribe’s Wichita headquarters. Webber’s daughter, Jennifer Middlebrook, said her father does not take media calls.

“I know a lot of it is a misunderstanding because we are not doing anything wrong,” said Middlebrook, who also serves as the tribe’s secretary of records. “Everything we are doing here is legal and to benefit everybody in the tribe.”

She referred further comment to Manuel Urbina, the tribe’s spokesman and high chief. He did not immediately return a phone message.

In an interview before the Texas filing became public, Urbina said the tribe is not really telling illegal immigrants that they cannot be deported, but giving them identification and a certificate that they can show officials as proof they are members of the tribe.

“There is nothing to hide. ... I wouldn’t be doing it if it was illegal,” Urbina said.

Tipton’s phone had been disconnected, and Ramirez did not immediately return a call for comment.

The lawsuit alleges Webber promotes himself as the titular head of the tribe and Tipton its ambassador to Texas. Ramirez held himself out as a pastor who promoted the tribe’s membership benefits to illegal immigrants, temporary residents, and other non-U.S. citizens in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere in the state.

Abbott spokesman Tom Kelley said it was unclear how many violations there were in Texas or how many people had joined the tribe.