Isleta ordinance requires background checks

........................................................................................................................................................................................

A July 2011 amendment to the Pueblo of Isleta residence ordinance has been approved, requiring all non-tribal members residing within pueblo lands to submit to a basic criminal background check, along with the usual residency permission request if they want to live on the reservation.

Non-members will have until Monday, Feb. 27, to apply or reapply for residency under the new ordinance.

However, some tribal members feel that the ordinance is vague regarding what the criteria is for residency denial, what will be done with the information gathered from the background checks and who will have access to it — matters which the ordinance does not clearly address, they say.

"If they could clarify it, because now I think it's very ambiguous," said tribal member and former tribal councilor Chris Abeita, who was banished from office in 2002 after, he says, he published a newsletter discussing actions of the Isleta Tribal Council and the governor.

According to the amendment, "All members of the pueblo that plan to reside within Pueblo of Isleta lands with a non-member must first request written permission from the governor before taking up residence within Pueblo of Isleta lands … The non-member shall submit to a basic criminal background check in a form established by the Governor's Office and the cost of which shall be borne by the non-member or member."

In the December 2011 issue of the Isleta Pueblo News, Gov. Frank Lujan wrote that the filing fee for the background check will be $50.

Once approved, non-members will be required to renew their residency application every five years.

The ordinance defines a non-tribal member as an individual who is not a member or a descendant of the tribe. A tribal member is an individual with one-half degree Isleta Indian blood or above, and a descendent is an individual with less than one-half degree, but at least one-fourth degree, of Isleta Indian blood.

The ordinance cites Article V, Section 2 of the Tribal Constitution, which gives the tribal council the power "to enact ordinances, subject to the approval by the secretary of the interior, to protect the peace, safety, property, health and general welfare of the members of the pueblo."

In a written statement to the News-Bulletin, Gov. Lujan said that in implementing the ordinance, the pueblo has created two sets of forms to be used to apply or reapply for residency.

One set is for non-members who do not live within the pueblo, but wish to get permission to reside, and the other is for individuals currently living within the pueblo who wish to obtain consent to continue to reside on the pueblo.

Based on the results of the background check, the governor will inform the applicant, in writing, of the approval or denial to reside in Isleta.

If the applicant is approved, a permission to reside agreement is signed, which Gov. Lujan said "basically is agreeing to respect and abide by the laws, rules, regulations, customs and traditions of the Pueblo of Isleta, including the residence ordinance.

"Primarily, the intent of this ordinance is to know who resides within the lands of the pueblo," said Lujan. "The ordinance has been well received by the majority of the members, including those who have non-member spouses or who have significant others."

He said the governor's office has received about 80 applications so far with half of those being approved and the other half awaiting background checks.

Lujan said none have been denied to date and that denial could result from being convicted of murder, a sex offense, child molestation, drug dealing and other major criminal offenses.

But Abeita thinks the process could be subject to abuse.

"There's no safeguards as to what they're going to do with this information once they acquire it," Abeita said. "Who's going to have access to that information that they acquire? I'm sure they're going to say the governor's going to protect it.

"Well, what are the remedies if it's not protected?" he asked. "And what recourse does anyone have for the tribe losing that information, because it's happened in the past."

Abeita said his main concern is that the required background checks are an invasion of privacy and violates tribal members' rights as American citizens.

"I think that it's an invasion of privacy to tribal members and to their family members, who may be non-members or non-Indians," said Abeita. "I think that we are tribal members, but we are also American citizens, and we should also have the same rights that any other American would have and one of the rights, I feel, is to be safe and secure in your own home."

He said he feels a failed petition in 2009 to lower the blood quantum from one-half to one-fourth degree for membership qualification could be a motive behind the amendment.

"My impression for the motivation behind (the amendment) is the vote at the end of 2009 where tribal members tried to lower the blood quantum from one-half to one-fourth," Abeita said.

The measure failed by 10 votes.

"I think that scared a lot of tribal officials into wanting to get rid of the agitators, so to speak, and this is a mechanism by which they can do that. That's my personal opinion of why they're doing this. Obviously, I can't prove that."

Abeita also said he thinks if the tribe is sincere about protecting its residents, it should do background checks on all residents, not just non-members.

"That's why I don't believe their claim that they're doing it to protect the community." Abeita said. "Because if that were the case, then they should investigate tribal members who have convictions of murder. So it doesn't make sense to me why only the family members who are married to non-Indians have to do this."

Terry Lente, co-chairperson for the Committee for a Future United Community, spearheaded the petition to lower blood quantum for enrollment from one-half to one-fourth. She thinks the ordinance is destroying the community and causing division between residents.

"They're self destructing the tribe, and they don't realize that," Lente said. "If they push people away now, they're destroying themselves. But if they include people, what a wonderful community we would have.

"We have so much to be thankful for about where we live, the land, the resources, the services that we get, but if you don't share with those others, you don't have a community," she said. "It takes a whole village to raise a child. And if you push that child away now, they're not going to participate."

In his statement, Gov. Lujan said the ordinance is not intended to cause division between residents, nor is it related to blood quantum issue.

"Tribal members of the Pueblo of Isleta have certain rights that come from their membership status," he said. "One of those rights is to live on their lands. The residence ordinance applies to non-tribal members, who do not have such a right.

"Today, with the population growth we have experienced, we need to control the activities that happen within the exterior boundaries of the reservation, especially identifying those who have committed serious crimes and those who continue to commit crimes, especially those who have been convicted of child abuse, murder, sex offenses, drug dealers, and the like.

"We will assure a safe environment for all people who reside within the reservation, member and non-member alike," Gov. Lujan said. "What the pueblo has done is the right thing to do."

Isleta Tribal Councilor ReGina J. Zuni said it is hypocritical of the tribe to investigate non-members when there are tribal leaders in office with criminal convictions, including DWI and battery against a minor.

She said these officials are in violation of the tribe's ethics code, a code designed to "require accountability to the people of the Pueblo of Isleta by their elected and appointed tribal officials …"

The code lists "offenses of moral turpitude" as a violation.

According to the ethics code, "Offenses of moral turpitude are crimes that have an inherent quality of baseness, vileness or depravity with respect to a person's duty to another or to society in general."

The code says the ethics board, a three-member board designed to investigate violations of the code, "shall evaluate the severity of the offense on a case by case basis."

Zuni said tribal officials with criminal convictions, including Lt. Gov. Edward Paul Torres, who was convicted of DWI this month in Los Lunas Magistrate Court, have not been investigated by the ethics board.

Abeita said because of tribal sovereignty, the tribe cannot be sued, so it's difficult to get justice.

"The solution that I see is, it's got to be a political solution, not through the courts, because I don't think the tribal court system is fair," said Abeita. "The only way that I see this residency ordinance changing is if we lower the blood quantum to change the political dynamic of the tribe.

"I think that once that blood quantum is lowered, it will allow quarter-bloods to also serve in office and have an influence as to where our government should go, and I think it'll bring about greater accountability."


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.