Pastor sentenced in case of unrecognized Indian tribe

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 6-08

A pastor ensnared in the federal prosecution of a group that claims to be an American Indian tribe was sentenced to time served for falsely claiming he was a U.S. citizen to get a Social Security card.

Jaime Cervantes, 45, who had already served nine months, was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation to Mexico. He was arrested in September as part of the prosecution of the Kaweah Indian Nation and its self-proclaimed chief, Malcolm Webber, in an alleged scam to sell tribal memberships to immigrants under the guise that the documents would give them U.S. citizenship.

Investigators now believe that between 10,000 and 15,000 immigrants in at least 15 states were defrauded into buying tribal memberships in the group, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson said.

“Once this case was filed, we saw a dramatic drop off in that activity,” Anderson said.

Cervantes, who pleaded guilty in April, was the first defendant in the case to be convicted.

His 19-year-old daughter, Noa Cervantes, told The Associated Press that her father believed Webber’s claims that those who joined the tribe would essentially be “reborn” as U.S. citizens.

“My client is more of a victim in this case than a witness,” Cervantes’ attorney, Roger Falk, said after Tuesday’s hearing.

Noa Cervantes said that Webber had come to her father’s church, Pentecostal United Hispanic, to preach and tell church members about an opportunity “only for Christians” to become U.S. citizens through membership in his tribe.

“My father believed he was a man of God,” she said in Spanish. “He deceived him and all the Christians in the church.”

When Webber spoke at the church, Cervantes and his wife were in the country legally under a 10-year work visa that expired in September 2007, Falk said. Cervantes paid $200 to enroll the family as tribal members, Noa Cervantes said.

Anderson said that the government has heard similar accounts from others about Webber.

The suspected pitch to immigrants by the Kaweah became public when the Nebraska Mexican-American Commission posted a warning on its Web site. The commission said that church members from several Nebraska cities reported being approached by tribal representatives.

Falk said after the sentencing that at the time his client was charged, the government believed he was more involved than he actually was.

Webber’s attorney, Kurt Kerns, has argued in court documents that Webber believed he was providing a legitimate method for immigrants to become registered in the United States.

Jaime Cervantes will likely be deported in two to three weeks. The trial for the remaining 10 defendants charged in the Kaweah Indian case is scheduled for Aug. 5.

Once deported, Cervantes will be barred from re-entering the United States, Anderson said.

Cervantes is the father of eight children ranging in ages from 10 months to 21 years, including three children born in the United States, his daughter said.

Noa Cervantes, who is married and a U.S. citizen, has remained in the United States, while the rest of the family has recently returned to Mexico. Members at the Wichita church, where he was pastor, raised money to help the family, she said.

“He had not committed any crime, but we are all suffering because of Webber,” Noa Cervantes said.

Jaime Cervantes pleaded guilty in April to a single count of submitting an application on June 8, 2007, for an original Social Security card in which he falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen. In return for his plea, prosecutors dismissed another related count against him.

Prosecutors contend the Kaweah Indian Nation, which is not a federally recognized tribe, marketed memberships to legal and illegal immigrants by saying the documents conferred U.S. citizenship and would allow immigrants to obtain other documents and benefits, including Social Security cards.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that the Kaweah group had no historical link to American Indian tribes. The bureau also ruled that Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, is not an Indian.