American immigration authorities approved thousands of requests to bring in child brides in the past decade, the majority involving significant age gaps between partners.
That’s according to a new report from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, which argues that loopholes in federal immigration laws enable, or even incentivize child marriages by granting spouses access to U.S. visas.
According to the study released earlier this month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 8,686 petitions in the past decade or so for spousal or fiancé entry involving juveniles.
There were more than 5,000 examples of adults petitioning on behalf of minors and nearly 3,000 in which minors sought to bring in older spouses or fiancés, per the data, which was requested in 2017 by the Senate subcommittee. “Our immigration system may unintentionally shield the abuse of women and children,” the senators said in their letter requesting the data.
Most of the requests came from Mexico, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, the Dominican Republic and Yemen. At least two cases in the report involved a girl as young as 13. In one instance, a 49-year-old man applied for a visa for a 15-year-old girl; in another case, a 71-year-old man sought to bring a 17-year-old wife to the U.S.
Underage-spouse petitions aren’t illegal. Under federal law, there’s no age requirement: children and adults who are U.S. citizens can request visas for spouses living abroad. The Immigration and Nationality Act evaluates spouse and fiancé petitions by checking the legality of the union in their home country and then deciding whether the marriage would be legal in the state the petitioning sponsor calls home.
Very few states outlaw child marriage. Delaware and New Jersey became the first two to ban the practice. All other states allow minors to marry if they meet certain conditions, such as parental consent or court approval.
In California, a Los Altos high school student named Aliesa Bahri proposed banning the practice altogether, pitching the idea in 2017 to state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo). The legislation ultimately got watered down after backlash from child advocacy groups arguing that legitimate reasons exist for minors to tie the knot.
Before leaving office, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Hill’s bill into law. California already allowed minors to marry with the blessing of a judge and guardian. Now, as of Jan. 1, partners and the parents of minors will also have to meet separately with court officials who can determine whether there’s any coercion or abuse.
Underage marriages had already been on the decline in Santa Clara County, where the courts considered 116 petitions since 2007. Only one was submitted in the past year, according records supplied by the Santa Clara County Superior Court.
Of those, 106 involved female minors ranging in age from 14 to 17. Nineteen involved male minors aged 16 to 17. Five included female adults between the ages of 18 and 20. Some 92 cases involved adult men between the ages of 18 and 42. In just 14 cases both of the partners were underage.
The youngest petitioner in the past 12 years was a 14-year-old girl. The youngest approved petitions involved a 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man.
Only two cases prompted probes from Child Protection Services, and that’s because they involved a pregnant underage girl asking to marry an adult man. The biggest age gaps involved female minors: a 17-year-old girl petitioning to marry a 33-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl requesting marriage to a 28-year-old man, which was denied.
It’s unclear, however, how many additional underage unions would register in this county based on the data from the USCIS, as Silicon Valley is one of the most immigrant-rich regions in the nation.
As a result of the Senate report findings, lawmakers plan to explore ways to reform the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to align with USCIS policy that deems underage marriages potential human rights abuses.
“If we are truly serious about upholding stated U.S. policy to prevent child marriages and protect children from potential abuse and harm,” the Senate subcommittee report concludes, “Congress must reform the INA to prevent individuals from obtaining immigration benefits that facilitate child marriages.”
In the meantime, the USCIS has rolled out a flagging system to identify cases involving a minor, which triggers additional layers of verification.