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Tribal chief charged in Kansas with running immigration scam

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By Roxana Hegeman -- Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The leader of an unrecognized American Indian tribe was charged Sept. 7 in an alleged scheme to sell memberships to immigrants by falsely claiming the documents conferred U.S. citizenship, a federal prosecutor said.

Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, was charged with one count of attempting to defraud the U.S. government, one count of harboring illegal immigrants and one count of possession of false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States.

''Reports are coming in from Social Security offices, driver's license bureaus and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, California and other states that foreign nationals are showing up with documents purchased from Mr. Webber,'' U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said in a news release.

The immigrants are offering the documents as proof of citizenship when seeking Social Security cards, driver's licenses and other forms of identification, he said.

More than 300 sets of documents from the Kaweah Indian Nation were submitted to the Social Security office in Wichita, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The federal complaint alleged Webber, 69, and his representatives were actively marketing tribal memberships across the United States by saying the memberships conferred U.S. citizenship and would allow immigrants to obtain other documents and benefits, including Social Security cards. It noted the BIA previously ruled that Webber is not an American Indian and his tribe is not an American Indian tribe.

The complaint alleges that immigrants paid up to $1,200 for tribal documents.

No one from the Kaweah Indian Nation could be reached for comment. In the past, its spokesman, Manuel Urbina, has denied that the tribe, which purports to have 10,000 members nationwide, was doing anything illegal.

Urbina has said that memberships cost only $50 for individuals and $100 for families. He claimed others who were not part of the tribe were falsely selling tribal documents for hundreds of dollars to illegal immigrants.

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Webber appeared without an attorney at his first court appearance Sept. 7, telling the judge he planned to hire his own lawyer. He did not enter a plea and was expected to remain in custody at least until a detention hearing Sept. 12.

Prosecutors will seek indictments against Webber and others in the scheme, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson said outside court. His office is not investigating any other tribe for similar scams, he said.

Prosecutors will determine on a case-by-case basis whether to charge immigrants who bought tribal memberships, Anderson said. Many buyers were unaware that the tribal documents could not be used to obtain Social Security cards and other benefits, he noted.

''There is a certain element of victimization in this. ... They are desperate to get some kind of documents and they are willing to spend what little money they have to get some status,'' Anderson said.

Thousands of applications with photographs and money orders were seized during a raid of Webber's offices in Wichita, Melgren said. Agents also seized $300,000 from a bank account bearing the name of the Kaweah Indian Nation.

The complaint alleged Webber created the group, solicited others to sell memberships and told Hispanic pastors and others that Kaweah membership conferred U.S. citizenship.

''Naturalizing is the only way for non-citizens to become U.S. citizens,'' Sheila O'Neil, assistant special agent for the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Office, said in a written statement. ''Anyone who makes any other claim defrauds his customers and the U.S. government.''

The tribe's secretary, a woman from El Salvador, and her Guatemalan husband were charged Aug. 15 with federal immigration violations that prosecutors said were linked to the case.

Days later, the Texas attorney general's office sued Webber, the Kaweah Indian Nation and two tribal members.

If convicted on the federal charges, Webber could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the charge of possessing false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The charge of harboring illegal aliens carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of $250,000 and the conspiracy charge carries a penalty of five years and a fine of $250,000.