Re­quests to bring in child brides le­gal

Vic­tims: Lure of pass­port com­bined with lax U.S. mar­riage laws to blame

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Nation & World - By Colleen Long

WASH­ING­TON — Thou­sands of re­quests by men to bring in child and ado­les­cent brides to live in the United States were ap­proved over the last 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.

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 raise 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. 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 fi­ances, 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 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 Naila Amin, a dual cit­i­zen from Pak­istan who grew up in New York City. over 50, found.

In 2011, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials ap­proved a 14-yearold’s pe­ti­tion for a 48-yearold 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 in 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 the

acom­mit­tee 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 were 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.

Sep­a­rately, the data show some 4,749 mi­nor spouses or fi­ances 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.

KATHY KMONICEK/AP

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