A young man from Punjab, India has come forward to tell the I-Team about his plan to pay for a shortcut to citizenship reserved for abused children.
The young man’s story appears to confirm the allegations of some Queens Family Court insiders who say that certain immigrants might have figured out how to game the Family Court, telling what critics believe are contrived stories of abuse to qualify for asylum.
After the I-Team reported on those concerns in March 2015, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation, which is ongoing.
The undocumented 21-year-old asked the I-Team not to identify him, so we’re calling him “John.” John says he came to the U.S. with a plan to get a green card.
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“It’s for good life, good future. That’s why I’m coming,” he told the I-Team during an interview in Richmond Hill late last year.
But that plan would cost John, his sisters, and his sisters-in-law tens of thousands of dollars.
John says first, his relatives paid $40,000 to agents who helped smuggle him, illegally, across the Mexican border.
“I pay money and bring other side,” John said. “My future, no have in India. No have work. No good money.”
John’s pathway to a better life continued north, to the Sikh community in Richmond Hill, not far from a most important stop along the route: The Queens Family Court.
He is heading to Family Court because under federal law, the court can grant special papers which all but guarantee a shortcut to citizenship for an undocumented person under the age of 21 who claims to have been abused or abandoned.
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The shortcut, authorized by federal law for victims, is called "special immigrant juvenile status."
But there’s a catch: in order to ask the family court for those papers, a young person must already be under the care of the family court for some other reason.
And at ages 18,19 or 20, there’s only one way to get before a family court judge: a guardianship proceeding, experts say.
John would need an older person to come to court asking to feed him, house him, and become his legal guardian. John says when he arrived in Queens, he met the man who would become his guardian, for a price.
John says his guardian asked him for $33,000, telling him: "I need money, you need papers.”
“That is not supposed to happen,” said Ronald Richter, a former family court judge and former NYC Children’s Services Commissioner, who is currently CEO of the children’s organization, the JCCA.
“If somebody is asking a young person for money in return for filing a guardianship petition then they’re perpetrating something upon the court that is not what’s meant by the special immigrant juvenile status law,”said Richter, adding that the Family Court is already overburdened, dealing with serious issues including family violence and neglect.
“You would never want to see someone coming in in and misusing that kind of forum,” Richter said.
So why did John agree to speak to the I-Team? With his immigration shortcut about to expire on his 21st birthday John said his guardian, a distant relative through marriage, started demanding payment in full, before he had completed his part of the deal in court.
John tells the I-Team since he could not and would not pay the balance of $18,000, the guardian threw him out of his home. John says he had to call police to retrieve his belongings.
The NYPD confirms they did respond to a call on the night at the guardian’s address.
John says he went to live with his friend’s mother, who he calls “Auntie.," and who agreed to be interviewed by the I-Team.
“You cannot throw the kid out on the street,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
She says the guardian mistreated John, acknowledging that young Punjabi men and their families, desperate for better lives, put themselves in vulnerable situations.
“Back at home, these kids have no opportunities," Auntie said. "Parents don’t want their kids to live there. They choose a difficult way to send their kids illegally to America. There are agents that take money. If one person gets out and he or she’s having a good life, word spreads out.”
In Queens Family Court, it appears the word is out about this pathway. The number of guardianship petitions for young Punjabi men seeking special immigration status has soared here in recent years.
So what happened to John’s plan? The I-Team went to court to see for ourselves. At John’s hearing earlier this year, the guardian showed up. And in the courtroom it appeared they had patched up their differences.
The guardian testified he was caring for John and supporting him. Nobody told the court that that John was paying the guardian.
The guardian said he was housing John, though John and his “Auntie” had told the I-Team he no longer lived there.
John and the guardian testified that there had never been any conflict in their relationship and that the guardian was a caring elder, motivated by kindness.
Finally, John testified that he had been abused by his father back in India, omitting that his sisters and in laws had paid a great deal of money to send him here for a better life.
The I-Team does not know whether John’s story of abuse by his father was true or false.
After concluding that John and his guardian had testified credibly, the court quickly approved the guardianship and John’s special immigration papers. The I-Team asked the guardian if he was being paid by the young man. “No, no, no, no, not paid,” he said.
Last year, the I-Team reported allegations that the same guardians were coming to court repeatedly to take legal and financial responsibility for multiple young men. At the time, New York state court officials acknowledged multiple guardianships should raise a red flag. But in John’s case, that didn’t happen, even though it was revealed in court that John was not the only young man for whom this guardian and his wife had sought legal responsibility.
Asked about John’s case, court spokesman David Bookstaver said, “Over the past few months, myriad safeguards have been put in place and we continue to examine these issues. But if individuals are intent on scamming the system and misusing it, the system will never be 100 percent foolproof. “
Former Judge Richter said he was concerned by John's story.
“There’s no question that what you have presented is troubling and serious, and needs to be considered by the appropriate authorities,” Richter said.
In a statement to NBC 4 New York, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services said it is investigating John's situation and emphasized that the agency can revoke ill-gotten benefits.
"USCIS takes immigration fraud seriously and coordinates with other agencies to swiftly rescind or revoke benefits obtained through willful misrepresentation," the statement said. "The Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate and the Identity and Benefit Fraud Unit are looking into the matter. At the same time, we ensure that individuals who are eligible for benefits are not harmed by the unscrupulous actions of others."
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) told NBC 4 New York's I-Team Wednesday he called the Department of Homeland Security after watching the report the day before and that he was told an investigation was pending.
"I said, 'light a fire, baby! Get this thing moving!' This is outrageous," he told the I-Team.
He said he called for the probe in March 2015, after the I-Team's initial reports on the matter aired.
"They're doing it in their nice, slow bureaucratic way. Enough," said Schumer.