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Federal Scrutiny of a Youth Immigration Program Alarms Advocates

Wednesday, 01 April 2015

Among the myriad laws and regulations that govern the nation’s immigration system is a special program, created 25 years ago, that allows immigrant youths who have been abused, neglected or abandoned to apply for a green card.

Tens of thousands of young people have obtained legal immigration status through the program.

But new federal scrutiny of the program, prompted by allegations of green card fraud in Queens, has alarmed immigrants’ advocates and legal service providers, who are concerned that an overreaction by politicians could jeopardize legitimate petitions.

The scrutiny was spurred by a report on WNBC in New York that raised the possibility of a fraudulent scheme among the Sikh population in Queens. The station reported that hundreds of youths from the Punjab region of India were arriving in Queens County Family Court and telling “similar stories” in an effort to secure the protection, known as special immigrant juvenile status.

Under the laws governing the program, a state juvenile court judge must determine, among other rulings, that the child cannot be reunited with one or both parents because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. The judge must also determine custody or guardianship of the child. In New York State, the family courts have that responsibility, and federal immigration officials rely on family court rulings to determine whether a child is eligible to apply for the special status, which is available in New York only to applicants under age 21.

The NBC report, shown early last month, quoted a Queens Family Court judge, John Hunt, saying the court’s judges “don’t have a way of investigating” applicants’ testimony. “It becomes pretty much taking what’s said at face value,” he said. (Messages left for Judge Hunt and for Judge Carol Stokinger, the supervising judge at Queens Family Court, were not answered.)

In response to the television report, Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, sent a letter to Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Homeland Security Department, demanding an inquiry into the juvenile program and the “apparent conspiracy to commit fraud.”

Christopher S. Bentley, chief spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of Homeland Security, said the agency was “looking into the matter.”

The New York State court system has also been examining the issue. “If the law and the court system are being misused or abused, then clearly we need to address that,” said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the system. But he was quick to add that court administrators “don’t believe this is widespread” and defended the law as “critical in assisting minors in peril.”

Still, Dennis W. Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, issued a memo on March 18 to all family court officers instructing them to tighten fingerprinting procedures. Under the law, an adult seeking guardianship of a child, as well as anyone else over the age of 18 living in the home, must be fingerprinted.

 Before that memo was delivered, court officers generally accepted whatever identification the applicants presented, immigrants’ advocates said. The new guidelines permitted only certain kinds of government identification, nearly all issued by the United States government and often unavailable to undocumented immigrants, raising questions about whether the guidelines violated due process.

But Mr. Bookstaver said Tuesday that state court administrators were in the process of instructing the officers’ association to rescind the directive and return to the previous criteria, which he said were in compliance with state regulations.

“We don’t want to turn the juvenile in crisis away,” Mr. Bookstaver said.

Immigrants’ advocates and legal service providers have rushed to head off more fallout from the television report. They acknowledge that as with the operation of other laws, the juvenile program could be tainted with fraud. But they contend that numerous safeguards are in place to protect against it.

The Legal Aid Society, on behalf of 13 leading immigrants’ services and advocacy groups in New York, sent a letter to Judge A. Gail Prudenti, the state’s chief administrative judge, saying the agencies’ lawyers had seen no indication of “widespread scams” in the special immigrant juvenile program.

The letter argued that family court judges had the ability to weigh the evidence and determine the credibility of petitioners’ claims. In addition, they have numerous tools at their disposal to investigate proposed guardians, including ordering background checks and home visits.

“If a judge does not find a witness credible, she can deny the motion,” said the letter, which was signed by Seymour W. James Jr., attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society. “The law works well as written, requiring the family court to make decisions well within its expertise.”

Jojo Annobil, head of the society’s Immigration Law Unit, said in an interview that the allegations of fraud “in a very, very small community in Queens” risked provoking an overblown reaction that could compromise the entire program.

“It’s led to Goodlatte asking Jeh Johnson to investigate it, and also tell him how they’re closing loopholes,” Mr. Annobil said. “The thing is, there are no loopholes to close.”

Source: The New York Times

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