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. The approval is the first of a two-step visa process, and USCIS said it has taken steps to better flag and vet the petitions.
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 fiance claims are rejected. A State Department representative said the department is committed to protecting the rights of children and combatting forced marriage.
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 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.
USCIS created a flagging system when a minor spouse or fiance is detected. After the initial flag, it is sent to a special unit that verifies the age and relationship are correct before the petition is accepted. Another flag requires verification of the birthdate whenever a minor is detected. Officials note an approval doesn't mean the visa is immediately issued.
"USCIS has taken steps to improve data integrity and has implemented a range of solutions that require the verification of a birthdate whenever a minor spouse or fiance is detected," USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said. "Ultimately, it is up to Congress to bring more certainty and legal clarity to this process for both petitioners and USCIS officers."
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.
Follow Colleen Long on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ctlong1