The Associated Press obtained data from the government that indicates thousands of requests by men to bring in child and adolescent brides to live in the United States were approved over the past decade. In one case, a 49-year-old man applied for admission for a 15-year-old girl.
The approvals are legal because The Immigration and Nationality Act does not set minimum age requirements. And in deciding on the petitions for spouses or fiancees, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and then whether the marriage would be legal in the state where the petitioner lives.
The new 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 United States, 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 spouse to be. This is 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 passport ruined my life,” said Naila Amin, a dual citizen from Pakistan who grew up in New York City.
She was forcibly married at the age of 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.”
Amin is now 29, she said she was betrothed to her first cousin Tariq when she was just 8 and he was 21. The petition was eventually terminated after she ran away. She said the ordeal cost her a childhood.
“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.
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.