According to government data obtained and released by The Associated Press, thousands of requests by men to bring child as well as adolescent brides to live in the United States were approved over the past decade.
In one of those cases, a 49-year-old man applied to bring in a 15-year-old girl.
The sickening part is that approvals are legal: The Immigration and Nationality Act does not set any minimum age requirements.
The data raises serious questions about whether the immigration system is enabling forced marriage and about how United States laws is compounding the problem despite all efforts to limit child and forced marriage.
Marriage between adults and minors is sadly not uncommon in the U.S., and most states do actually allow children to marry with some restrictions.
According to data requested by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, there were over 5,000 cases of adults petitioning on behalf of minors and around 3,000 examples of minors seeking to bring in older spouses or fiances.
Victims of forced marriage say the lure of a U.S. passport combined with lax U.S. marriage laws are fueling the petitions.
“My passport ruined my life,” said Naila Amin, a dual citizen from Pakistan who grew up in New York City.
She was forcibly married at 13 in Pakistan and applied for papers for her 26-year-old husband to come to the country.
“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.”
“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.
To obtain U.S. immigration visas and green cards, there is a two-step process. Petitions are first considered by USCIS. If accepted, they must be approved by the State Department. Overall, there were 3.5 million petitions received from budget years 2007 through 2017.
Over that time period, 5,556 were approved for those seeking to bring minor spouses or fiancees, and 2,926 approved for 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.
In just about all these cases, the girls were much younger in the relationship. In 149 instances, the adult was over 40, and in 28 cases the adult was over 50, the committee found.
Among the examples: Back 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.
Data from states show this is far from rare. State laws generally set the minimum age for marriage at 18, 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.
In New Jersey nearly 4,000 minors, mostly girls, were married in the state from 1995 to 2012, including 178 who were under 15.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services say they didn’t know how many of the approvals were granted by the State Department, but said 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 same 10-year period.
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