The United States’ immigration system has been approving thousands of male migrants’ requests to bring their underage brides or fiancees — some in their early teens with men over 40 — with them, raising concerns that the U.S. helped facilitate forced marriages.
According to the Associated Press, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) doesn’t abide by any age requirement and instead adjudicates petitions based on whether the marriage is legal in the spouse’s home country as well as the petitioner’s state of residence.
While some states require underage spouses to consent to the marriage, the USCIS, according to a Senate committee report, doesn’t look at consent when it approves petitions. On Friday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs revealed that between FY2007 and FY2017, USCIS approved 8,686 petitions involving a minor. The vast majority (95 percent) of those minors were girls.
Those included petitions in which a minor requests entry for their older spouse, a practice that, according to the non-profit Unchained At Last, allows families to avoid paying dowries. “The families of young brides will often promise American citizenship to a foreign husband in lieu of paying a dowry,” the organization’s founder, Fraidy Reiss said, according to the Senate report.
According to the AP, 2,296 approvals involved minors who requested to bring an older spouse to the U.S. and in 5,556, the older spouse made the request.
While most of the petitions involved minors who were 16 or 17 years old, two were 13 years old and 38 were 14. Nearly 270 were 15 years old. More than a hundred cases involved men over 40 and, in one case, the USCIS approved a petition that involved a 71-year-old man and his 17-year-old spouse from Guatemala.
Watch one of them tell her story below:
The Committee highlighted the story of Naila Amin who, during a trip to Pakistan, was forced to marry her first cousin after she was engaged at only 8 years of age. Amin, who was 13 at the time, filed a petition in 2003 for her 26-year-old husband to immigrate to the United States.
Although her parents eventually sent her to live with her first cousin in Pakistan, the USCIS approved her petition in 2004. “Throughout her forced marriage she suffered physical and sexual abuse,” the Committee’s report read before noting that she escaped in 2005.
“Imagine someone is beating you and raping you every day of your life,” Amin said during an interview. She explained that she was suicidal and tried drinking bleach.
The Senate’s report concluded by calling for reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Act which allowed petitions without age requirements.
“If we are truly serious about upholding stated U.S. policy to prevent child marriages and protect children from potential abuse and harm,” the report read, “Congress must reform the INA to prevent individuals from obtaining immigration benefits that facilitate child marriages.”