A federal law intended to protect abused child victims of sex trafficking is being exploited as a shortcut to legal immigration status, Queens Family Court insiders charge.
Court insiders tell the I-Team that over the last year, hundreds of young men from the same part of India are all telling similar stories in order to get special access to green cards. Judges say they have no way of verifying their tales.
“In my opinion, the process is faulty,” said Queens Family Court Judge John Hunt.
Hunt tells the I-Team it is virtually impossible to verify the facts needed to know if these young men actually qualify. But since there's no proof they don't qualify, they move through the system.
In recent months, the I-Team has interviewed judges, clerks, lawyers and even some who work as Punjabi translators in these cases. They 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. It’s a little known route they’ve learned to navigate with the help of lawyers and criminal human smugglers who sources tell the I-Team are profiting.
At Queens Family Court last month, the I-Team found Amandeep Singh -- a common name both in India and in the courthouse.
According to court sources, he is at least the 14th Amandeep Singh from the Punjab state of India to seek immigration help in Queens Family Court -- a place better known for custody and child support cases. Singh tells a judge he was abused by his parents, starved and beaten with sticks. Although this may be completely true, judges say they have no investigative recourse.
After one hour in court, Singh, who is undocumented and was smuggled across the border, was well on his way to getting a green card, permanent legal status and the right to work in the U.S.
Singh's lawyer, Merrill Clark tells the I-Team some of his clients think this pathway is too good to be true when they first learn about it. Clark says that's because it is.
"It’s an amazing thing," Clark said. "It’s a big exception in immigration.”
Under the federal William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, initially enacted in 1990 and reauthorized in 2008, all Singh had to do to get a judge to sign off on the guardianship was tell him he was younger than 21, undocumented, unmarried, abandoned or abused by one parent and that he'd be better off staying in the U.S.
“It’s a great law," Clark said. "And the big thing about this is that no one seems to know about this. It’s a big secret."
The secret seems to have gotten out in the populous Sikh community of Queens. The borough's family court is suddenly swamped with cases that insiders say are strikingly similar -- hundreds of young Punjabi men with stories of months-long journeys from India across the Mexican border in the hands of paid smugglers.
They arrive in court in a hurry and tell a judge how they were abused by a parent. There’s time pressure: many say they’re 20 years old, and the immigration help they’re seeking expires once they turn 21.
This time pressure creates what some judges call “a birthday emergency” that taxes the court and puts other cases on the back burner.
“You got people jumping in here wanting immediate results in their case," said Hunt. "So the family court has to hurry itself and it already has a lot of cases."
Family court sources tell the I-Team they’re suspicious about the similar way these cases begin -- often with an older man from the neighborhood petitioning to become the young man’s guardian. Some guardians will say they are “an uncle” or even just “an acquaintance” the young man met at the Gurdwara, the local Sikh temple.They testify they want to house the young man and take full financial responsibility for him.
The number of guardianship cases in Queens has gone up 75 percent last year. In 2013, court saw 503 guardianship cases, and then in 2014, the number jumped to 882.
Family court insiders tell the I-Team that they suspect many of the guardians are merely playing the role of hospitable caretakers in court to help the young men get access to a judge so they can tell their story of abuse or abandonment and get on that fast track to a green card.
Clark says their cases are strong.
“I think what you are trying to imply is that they’re gaming the system," Clark said. "And I stand by my client’s facts that they have enough evidence.
“I have not seen fraud, but I’m sure there is,” added Clark. He told the I-Team the desire for student loans is driving most of the applications for special immigrant status.
Indrajit Saluja, publisher of the Indian Panorama newspaper, disagrees.
“It’s all nonsense," he said. "The simple truth is they want to come and make money here.”
Saluja tells the I-Team the Punjabi presence in Queens Family Court cries out for an investigation. He says he has interviewed some of the guardians for his newspaper and they told him they were paid thousands of dollars to appear in court.
“It’s a business," Saluja said. "The people who are smuggling these young people, they find guardians here and they pay them.”
One of Saluja’s sources told him in a recorded conversation he shared with the I-Team that the young men and their families pay big money to smuggling enterprises with connections all the way from India to Queens.
The goal is to deliver the young men over the Mexican border and onto this special immigration pathway, he says.
While the I-Team could not independently confirm a claim by Saluja’s source that he was paid illegally to play the role of guardian, the I-Team did verify the man's identity and that he had gone to court to become a guardian four separate times since 2011. Court employees call that frequency “fishy.”
In addition to his newspaper work, Saluja also has experience working as a Punjabi interpreter in Queens Family Court, so he has seen these cases up close.
“It’s a S-C-A-M – scam! Big scam!” said Saluja. "Every single day the judge hears the same thing: 'My father beats me with a belt. My father punches me.' What kind of image are we creating for Punjabi Parents? That hurts me."
The I-Team spent a lot of time in Queens Family Court in recent months looking into many different cases. In one particular case, the I-Team heard a lawyer in the public waiting room prepping a young man and his guardian before seeing the judge. The lawyer clearly coached them on responses.
“Did your mom OK this guardianship?" the lawyer asked.
“Yes,” said the young man.
“No!” said the lawyer, correcting him.“You are not supposed to have spoken to your mother.”
The lawyer asked the guardian If he had been providing basic expenses. When the guardian said “no” the lawyer corrected him again. “Yes you have," the lawyer said. "Say you have been.”
During hearings inside the courtroom, the I-Team listened as judges seemed frustrated trying to get straight answers from the young men about their ages, dates of birth, when they arrived and how they were abused.
Some young men tell stories of being in debt to their smugglers. And some of the testimony the I-Team heard raises the question of why a parent who starved and beat his or her son with a stick would also mortgage the family home to pay smugglers $80,000 or $100,000 for their journey to a better life.
Judges tell the I-Team their hands are tied.
Hunt said he had questions about a case before him last year.
“He was very, very unclear on details," Hunt said of the young man. "I had questions about the account the young man gave -- whether or not it was true."
In his ruling, Hunt wrote the judges have little leeway to investigate or reject the findings, saying the court can do little more than act as a “rubber stamp” based on self serving evidence.”
“There is a community of people who may have the insight more so than others," Hunt said. "And they’re merely taking advantage of what the law allows.”
Congressman Peter King, a Long Island Republican, says this is not what Congress had in mind when it passed the law creating special immigrant juvenile status.
“It’s a total abuse of the law and it’s a scam,” King said, explaining that the intent of the law was to protect child victims of sex trafficking or to help children who end up in desperate circumstances after being brought here illegally by their parents.
King says the law was in no way intended to be used by young adults who are smuggled here to take advantage of it.
Immigration lawyer RIcha Puri says the special pathway is desperately needed to protect undocumented young people on U.S. soil. She says while it would be highly unethical to fabricate stories of abuse or pay guardians to participate. She also says just because many of the Punjabi kids’ names and stories are similar does not make their stories false.
“The name Amandeep Singh is common like Jennifer Smith or John Smith," Puri said. "If they have a legitimate case, they have a legitimate case. Just because they’re gonna get a green card as the end result doesn’t mean it’s fake."
The Sikh community in Queens is not the only community where the I-Team saw an increase in young people applying for this special status. Long Island Family Courts have also seen a recent surge in these types of cases from Central America, though not nearly to the same degree.
The number of guardianship cases in Queens jumped 75 percent last year compared with the year before.
Insiders say the cases add costs and stress to a court that is already understaffed and overburdened; the cases require interpreters, court-appointed lawyers for the young men and home visits by child welfare .
“I would imagine that the federal government has better investigative tools than a humble family court judge sitting in a courtroom without any,” said Hunt.
The Department of Homeland Security tells the I-Team it rejected only 3 percent of the 1,400 applications for special immigrant status from New York.
Federal immigration officials say because of the way the system is set up, they have to rely on the findings of the family court and have no jurisdiction over how thoroughly the judges can evaluate these cases.They also told the I-Team they could not provide a breakdown of applications for special status by country of origin.
In several cases where judges have rejected the findings, they’ve been overruled on appeal.
Hunt says he sat down with the I-Team because he feels New Yorkers deserve to know about this pipeline through their courts. He says he’s afraid it could be encouraging more young men like Singh to be smuggled here.
Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society say if this legal pathway to permanent residency is eliminated, it would be tragic for the many young people who legitimately need it.