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New York youth jobs program accepted 62-year-old

ALBANY — A state audit has found lapses at a program that rewards employers who hire young workers — including a 62-year-old who was deemed eligible for the program.

The review, published Thursday by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, found several problems in the state-run program, including nearly $200,000 in questionable tax credits. Some of the companies that received the credits hired employees who were too old for the program, while others didn’t adequately verify their employee’s eligibility.

The Associated Press was first to publish the results of the audit.

The jobs program, started in 2011, encourages employers to hire at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 by awarding tax credits of up to $500 for a full-time worker. To be eligible, a worker must meet also meet certain criteria, such as living in public housing or being a foster child. The program covers the state’s largest cities in addition to some smaller ones with significant pockets of poverty.

DiNapoli’s auditors recommended changes in the way the state verifies worker eligibility, including possibly requiring more information from young employees.

“Better oversight and verification of participants’ eligibility is needed to prevent companies getting questionable tax breaks,” DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying the audit. “These tax credits exist to benefit businesses and the young people they hire and should only go to those who meet the program’s requirements.”

The Department of Labor disagreed with some of his recommendations, saying requiring more information from young workers might prevent them from participating.

In its formal response to the audit, the department said the program’s verification rules are intended “to be as stringent as necessary to ensure only eligible youth participate in the program, without discouraging youth participation.”

Gian Ehrenzeller Keystone via Associated Press 

People clear snow from inside the Hotel Saentis in Schwaegalp, Switzerland,, Switzerland on Friday after an avalanche. Police said three people were slightly hurt when the avalanche hit the hotel at Schwaegalp on Thursday afternoon. 

Requests to bring in child brides OK'd; legal under US laws

WASHINGTON — Thousands of requests by men to bring in child and adolescent brides to live in the United States were approved over the past decade, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press. In one case, a 49-year-old man applied for admission for a 15-year-old girl.

The approvals are legal: The Immigration and Nationality Act does not set minimum age requirements for the person making the request or for that person’s spouse or fiancee. By contrast, to bring in a parent from overseas, a petitioner has to be at least 21 years old.

And in weighing petitions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the spouse or fiancee’s home country and then whether the marriage would be legal in the state where the petitioner lives.

The data raises questions about whether the immigration system may be enabling forced marriage and about how U.S. laws may be compounding the problem despite efforts to limit child and forced marriage. Marriage between adults and minors is not uncommon in the U.S., and most states allow children to marry with some restrictions.

There were more than 5,000 cases of adults petitioning on behalf of minors and nearly 3,000 examples of minors seeking to bring in older spouses or fiances, according to the data requested by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in 2017 and compiled into a report.

Some victims of forced marriage say the lure of a U.S. passport combined with lax U.S. marriage laws are partly fueling the petitions.

“My sunshine was snatched from my life,” said Naila Amin, a dual citizen born in Pakistan who grew up in New York City.

She was forcibly married at 13 in Pakistan and later applied for papers for her 26-year-old husband to come to the U.S. at the behest of her family. She was forced for a time to live in Pakistan with him, where, she said, she was sexually assaulted and beaten. She came back to the U.S., and he was to follow.

“People die to come to America,” she said. “I was a passport to him. They all wanted him here, and that was the way to do it.”

Amin, now 29, said she was betrothed when she was just 8 and he was 21. The petition she submitted after her marriage was approved by immigration officials, but he never came to the country, in part because she ran away from home. She said the ordeal cost her a childhood. She was in and out of foster care and group homes, and it took a while to get her life on track.

“I was a child. I want to know: Why weren’t any red flags raised? Whoever was processing this application, they don’t look at it? They don’t think?” Amin asked.

Fraidy Reiss, who campaigns against coerced marriage as head of a group called Unchained at Last, has scores of similar anecdotes: An underage girl was brought to the U.S. as part of an arranged marriage and eventually was dropped at the airport and left there after she miscarried. Another was married at 16 overseas and was forced to bring an abusive husband.

Reiss said immigration status is often held over their heads as a tool to keep them in line.

There is a two-step process for obtaining U.S. immigration visas and green cards. Petitions are first considered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. If granted, they must be approved by the State Department. Overall, there were 3.5 million petitions received from budget years 2007 through 2017.

Over that period, there were 5,556 approvals for those seeking to bring minor spouses or fiancees, and 2,926 approvals by minors seeking to bring in older spouses, according to the data. Additionally, there were 204 for minors by minors. Petitions can be filed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

“It indicates a problem. It indicates a loophole that we need to close,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told the AP.

In nearly all the cases, the girls were the younger person in the relationship. In 149 instances, the adult was older than 40, and in 28 cases the adult was over 50, the committee found. In 2011, immigration officials approved a 14-year-old’s petition for a 48-year-old spouse in Jamaica. A petition from a 71-year-old man was approved in 2013 for his 17-year-old wife in Guatemala.

There are no nationwide statistics on child marriage, but data from a few states suggests it is far from rare. State laws generally set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, yet every state allows exceptions. Most states let 16- and 17-year-olds marry if they have parental consent, and several states — including New York, Virginia and Maryland — allow children under 16 to marry with court permission.

Reiss researched data from her home state, New Jersey. She determined that nearly 4,000 minors, mostly girls, were married in the state from 1995 to 2012, including 178 who were under 15.

“This is a problem both domestically and in terms of immigration,” she said.

Reiss, who says she was forced into an abusive marriage by her Orthodox Jewish family when she was 19, said that often cases of child marriage via parental consent involve coercion, with a girl forced to marry against her will.

“They are subjected to a lifetime of domestic servitude and rape,” she said. “And the government is not only complicit; they’re stamping this and saying: Go ahead.”

The data was requested in 2017 by Johnson and then-Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the committee’s top Democrat. Johnson said it took a year to get the information, showing there needs to be a better system to track and vet the petitions.

“Our immigration system may unintentionally shield the abuse of women and children,” the senators said in the letter requesting the information.

USCIS didn’t know how many of the approvals were granted by the State Department, but overall only about 2.6 percent of spousal or fiancee claims are rejected.

Separately, the data show some 4,749 minor spouses or fiancees received green cards to live in the U.S. over that 10-year period.

The head of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna, said in a letter to the committee that its request had raised questions and discussion within the agency on what it can do to prevent forced minor marriages. Officials created a flagging system that requires verification of the birthdate whenever a minor is detected.

But it’s difficult to make laws around the age when so many states allow for young marriages.

The country where most requests came from was Mexico, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, the Dominican Republic and Yemen. Middle Eastern nationals had the highest percentage of overall approved petitions.

Closed Vermont nuclear plant sale complete

Three children dead after fire

HERKIMER — The remains of three young boys were recovered Friday from the charred rubble of an upstate New York home that was quickly consumed by fire just before dawn.

Two parents awakened by smoke detectors before 6 a.m. tried to save the boys from the rapidly spreading fire but were unable to, WKTV reported. The adults exited the home then attempted to go back in but weren’t able to reach the children, aged 1, 6, and 7.

“There was a very heavy fire load,” Herkimer Fire Chief John Spanfelner told the Observer-Dispatch. The fire “went through the whole house very quickly.”

All five people had been sleeping on the first floor of the older two-story home, according to Spanfelner.

The unidentified adults were treated at the scene by first responders, but details on their conditions were not immediately available. The bodies of the boys were found with the help of police dogs.

Officials did not immediately release the identities of the young victims.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Nuclear plant sale complete

VERNON, Vt. — The owner of the closed Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant says it has completed the sale of the plant to a demolition company.

Entergy Corp. said the sale to subsidiaries of Northstar Group Services was completed on Friday.

Vermont state regulators approved the sale in early December.

The Vermont Public Utility Commission said the primary benefit was that the New York-based Northstar planned to start decommissioning the plant no later than 2021, decades sooner than Entergy planned.

Entergy says the sale to a company expected to do timely and efficient decommissioning is a “first of its kind” in the nuclear power industry.

Vermont Yankee closed in 2014 after operating for 42 years.

Cuomo: Extend background checks

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wants to extend the background check waiting period for firearm purchase from three days to 10 days.

The Democrat announced the proposal on Thursday. It’s just one of several bills relating to firearm regulations that Cuomo says he’ll ask the Legislature to pass within the first 100 days of the 2019 session.

Cuomo is also pushing legislation that would authorize teachers and school administrators to ask a judge to evaluate a child they believe is a threat to themselves or others. The judge could then order the confiscation of firearms in the child’s home.

Similar proposals have failed before, but prospects for the bills have improved now that Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature. Lawmakers kicked off the 2019 session this week.

Today in History

On Jan 12:

1828: The United States and Mexico signed a Treaty of Limits defining the boundary between the two countries to be the same as the one established by an 1819 treaty between the U.S. and Spain.

1915: The U.S. House of Representatives rejected, 204-174, a proposed constitutional amendment to give women nationwide the right to vote.

1932: Hattie W. Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate after initially being appointed to serve out the remainder of the term of her late husband, Thaddeus.

1948: The U.S. Supreme Court, in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, unanimously ruled that state law schools could not discriminate against applicants on the basis of race.

Thought for Today: “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”

— George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright (1856-1950).