The New York state court system says it will tighten its fingerprinting procedures after the I-Team exposed what some believe is an organized scheme to exploit the Queens Family Court to gain faster access to green cards.
Earlier this month, the I-Team revealed that family court insiders allege a pattern in Queens in which a federal law intended to protect child victims of abuse or sex trafficking is exploited as a shortcut to legal immigration status.
Hundreds of young men from the same part of India have told strikingly similar stories in Queens Family Court, the I-Team learned from months of interviews with judges, clerks, lawyers and translators who work the cases. Judges tell the I-Team they fear these undocumented young men are illegally crossing the U.S. border with the knowledge that they can head to family court for help getting special immigration status.
As part of that process, the young men, appearing in court often with older men from the neighborhood petitioning for guardianship, recount tales of abuse they've suffered to judges. If the young men are under age 21, undocumented and unmarried, abused or abandoned by just one parent and say their lives will be better off in the United States, judges, having little recourse to verify their stories, most often approve the guardianship, paving a fast track to green cards for the men under the federal William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The number of guardianship cases in Queens went up 75 percent from 2013 to 2014 -- from 503 such cases to 882 -- an increase not seen in other boroughs' family courts. Some insiders alleged the guardians are paid illegally, in some cases by the families of the young men, to perform the role of hospitable caretakers during those hearings.
Guardians who come forward to claim responsibility for the young men have to be fingerprinted, though the I-Team has learned an official memo told family court workers in Queens to process them even when they don’t have the required identification.
State law requires two forms of government identification -- like a U.S. passport, driver's license or birth certificate -- must be presented for fingerprinting. Last year, court officers started complaining the identification being presented did not meet those standards, including one document from a local 99 cent store.
Some court officers and judges question why court management bent the rules to help people who could be undermining the court.
"They're coming in with all kinds of IDs you can't even read -- in a foreign language or they'll go to a store to pay $2 and 'Here's your ID,'" said court officer Peter Maney.
The acceptance of such forms of identification in some cases appears to have been sanctioned. The I-Team obtained a December memo from the chief family court clerk that instructed court employees to fingerprint a person even when the person is "unable to provide identification compliant with the rules" and the judge will be notified.
"We sent this memo knowing some immigrants don't have perfect ID," said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the New York State Court System. "We hoped to avoid turning away people who needed the court's help. Now we are aware that there may be a scam and we need to raise that bar."
Dennis Quirk, president of the union representing family court officers, said the practice is a security concern.
On Wednesday, Quirk sent out a memo to family court officers that said "effective immediately litigants cannot be printed until they produce acceptable ID."
"Our people are going to begin following the rules to the letter of the law and disregard any direction they receive from anyone else," Quirk said.
Court sources say these memos are now plastered all over family court buildings, and court insiders say they wonder why the policy was announced by the union instead of management.
Bookstaver said the court system is looking into allowing the city's new municipal ID card as an accepted form of identification. The card is not currently on the list of valid IDs for fingerprinting.
Meanwhile, people familiar with the cases like Indrajit Saluja, who publishes an Indian community newspaper and works in Queens Family Court as a Punjabi interpreter, are concerned the loophole could be exploited for more sinister purposes than accelerating the green card track for these young men.
"What we should be worried about is the ramifications of this kind of infiltration into the community," said Saluja, who is one of several people raising the question of whether terrorists could use the guardianship pathway to get into the country.
Judges tell the I-Team they have little way to verify the identities of the undocumented people asking for immigration help, as well as the guardians.
Sen. Chuck Schumer said the court system needs to move quickly.
"Terrorists look for loopholes and exploit them and mayhbe they haven't exploited it so far," Schumer said. "But they could. We better shut it down first."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee, said he is exploring ways to fix loopholes in immigration laws.
“An investigation by NBC New York has uncovered an apparent conspiracy to commit fraud in order to obtain special immigrant juvenile visas," Goodlatte said in a statement. "As this investigation seems to reveal, word has spread that it’s easy to game our immigration system."
Some immigration advocates are concerned that efforts to stop fraud will close the pathway off to people who truly need it. Two immigration groups asked Wednesday about efforts to tighten fingerprinting procedures at family court did not criticize the plans.
Mayor de Blasio has acknowledged the critical purpose the federal law in question has while expressing concern about the alleged exploitation.
"The situation of protecting those who have been actually subject to abuse and are actually seeking asylum is a pretty sacred reality, and should never be in any way be subject to fraud," de Blasio said. "It also worries me if it’s causing a lot of other important work in the family court not to be done. We know family court is incredibly overloaded to begin with, so that deeply worries me."
The Department of Homeland Security says it is taking steps to verify the ages and identities of the young men before they are granted green cards, but in some cases they have no identification. The cases are decided on a case-by-case basis, the federal agency said.