Weeks after NBC New York's I-Team uncovered concerns about widespread immigration fraud in Queens Family Court, federal investigators have uncovered signs of possible criminal activity and are expanding their probe into the alleged scheme, the I-Team has learned.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has pulled hundreds of files from Queens in recent weeks as part of their criminal investigation into the possible scheme to exploit a little known path to a green card by using a federal law intended to protect abused child victims of sex trafficking.
“Channel 4 has woken up the agency and DHS is now doing a full-fledged investigation as to what happened in the Queens court," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said.
The I-Team report that launched the probe described a pattern of undocumented young men from Punjab, India, illegally crossing the U.S. border then heading to family court to seek special immigration status, with the help of lawyers familiar with the shortcut and purported "guardians" who agree to take responsibility for them.
Under the federal William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, initially enacted in 1990 and reauthorized in 2008, all these individuals have to do to get a judge to sign off on the guardianship is to say they are younger than 21, undocumented, unmarried, abandoned or abused by one parent and that they would be better off staying in the U.S.
Court insiders suspect the men have learned to exploit the law with the help of lawyers and criminal human smugglers believed to be profiting from the scheme, sources told the I-Team.
The I-Team report relied upon interviews conducted over several months with numerous sources including judges, lawyers and translators, and prompted calls from high-ranking lawmakers for a federal probe into the alleged fraud.
Seven weeks into that probe, fraud investigators have found reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and assigned a Homeland Security task force to investigate the matter further, according to several federal government sources who have been briefed on the situation. The case could result in criminal charges, and cause hundreds of green cards to be revoked as well as people to be deported, according to federal officials familiar with it.
"DHS has told us that they are increasing their resources and focusing on this," Schumer, a Democrat, said. "They wouldn’t do this unless they thought there was something there."
Sources tell the I-Team federal investigators are examining patterns of similar stories told to Queens Family court judges and the role attorneys play in these cases.
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.
In one case, the I-Team heard a lawyer coach a client to change his answers before seeing a judge.
Patricia Aquino, 21, said she was dismayed to hear some people may be making up stories of abuse to get green cards. Aquino used the same pathway that is now allegedly being exploited to get her own green card. She says she crossed the border illegally when she was a toddler because her mother was fleeing an abusive family member in Mexico.
“It’s not right whatsoever,” said Aquino, choking back tears. "You can see it in somebody’s face when someone has been through this."
In response to the I-Team's investigation, congressional leaders have said they will look to tighten the law allowing abused immigrants to apply for green cards. That worries Aquino and officials at Sanctuary for Families, one of the groups that helps undocumented immigrants like Aquino get green cards with help from Family Court.
“The children Sanctuary sees are children who have been abused by parents,” said Judy Kluger, the non-profit organization’s executive director. "In any situation there can be abuse but that’s not reason enough to change the law and close this pathway to freedom.”
Judges say it is hard for them to know when they are being told the truth, because the stories of abuse are one-sided and allegedly took place in faraway homelands.
“A judge is not an investigator and family court judges, as you know, are so busy to begin with so they have no way of knowing if this information is true,” Federal District Judge Richard Berman said.
Judge Richard Berman is a former family court judge. He suggested that family court judges raise the stakes by requiring lawyers in these cases to swear in writing that their stories are legitimate.
“It would give the judge comfort -- more comfort than they have now,” Berman said. “It’s a very helpful way of minimizing abuse and nipping it in the bud.”
In an April 23 letter to the New York County Lawyers Association, Administrative Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson said “attorneys may be required to submit affirmations stating that they have conducted due diligence” and that petitions are being submitted in good faith.
Aquino is in college now, studying environmental science. She hopes abuses by some won’t damage a painful but crucial pathway to the American dream.
“Now I’m a resident," she said. "Within five years I’ll be a citizen.”