We talk a lot about sexual abuse and harassment here in the United States. We are a country with a heightened sense of what’s right and wrong when it comes to sex crimes. We are also a nation that preaches to others around the globe about the evils of forced marriage and marriages involving children.
Our State Department has told officials in developing countries that “forced marriage is a human rights abuse and, in the case of minors, a form of child abuse.” So why does our government actually encourage wedlock between girls as young as 13 and men in their 70’s?
A new report from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reveals that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has approved petitions facilitating such unions more than 8,600 times in the last decade! And ninety-five percent of the petitions involved an older foreign-born man with a child under the age of 17.
After these 8,600 petitions were okayed by officials at the USCIS they were then sent on to yet another government office – the U.S. State Department – for final approval, which almost always happened.
The senate report says that while USCIS had no way of knowing how many applications the State Department finally approved, “It is reasonable to conclude that the United States issued a visa to a significant number of the spouses and fiancés named on the 8,686 petitions.”
Some of the petitions screamed for more detail. So, why didn’t anyone at the USCIS or State Department ask why a 14-year-old U.S. citizen petitioned to bring her 48-year-old spouse from Jamaica? Didn’t the examiner think it odd that a 13-year-old American citizen would be asking for a spousal visa for her adult Pakistani husband? Had someone pressured the child into marriage? No one bothered to ask. The senate investigation revealed the 13-year-old’s parents had likely filed the petition under their daughter’s name after they took her to Pakistan and married her off to an older cousin.
These are just two of the thousands of cases of women and girls forced into marriage with an assist from the U.S. immigration system. Shameful.
Activists who help females caught in these marriages say this is akin to legalized human trafficking and it is not uncommon for a family to pay back a debt or otherwise reward someone in their home country with the prospect of American citizenship, visa vis marriage to their underaged daughter. The beneficiaries of this scheme, according to the new report, most frequently hail from (in order) Mexico, Pakistan, Jordan, Dominican Republic, Yemen and Iraq. In a majority of the cases the foreign-born person went on to became a Green Card Holder which gave them permanent U.S. resident status.
And the loopholes in our federal laws don’t stop there. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act any U.S. adult “may petition for a visa for a minor spouse or fiancé living abroad.” For example, an American adult could travel to, say, Southeast Asia where marriage laws are much less stringent, take a 13 or 14-year-old as a bride (or groom) and then, legally, bring them back to the USA to live. The youngster can then be threatened with deportation if they complain or reminded of the “shame” to their family if they break the marriage vow.
A USCIS official told senate investigators that it is easier for a minor to file an immigration petition “than it is to receive aspirin on a school field trip,” that’s how few questions the action raises. In a statement to the media a USCIS representative said the office is simply following existing U.S. law.
“Ultimately, it is up to Congress to bring more certainty and legal clarity to this process for both petitioners and USCIS officers,” USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said.
Make no mistake, there are child brides taken here in the U.S. as well. Most states require brides and grooms be at least 18 but there are instances where parents have given consent – usually on religious grounds – for their younger children to marry. It is clear parental consent doesn’t always come from a place of good judgement.
Human rights organizations like Unchained At Last and the Tahirih Justice Center believe the problem of forced and underage marriages is much more prevalent than the government figures indicate. Once caught up in one of these unions the unwilling spouse often becomes a victim of domestic abuse and rape, enslavement and enforced isolation. Any children in the household are likely made victims as well.
Look, the flaws in our immigration system are many and already the subject of much controversial debate. But this system, whereby the United States of America puts its imprimatur on child abuse, is not debatable. We are hypocrites if we preach to others about protecting women and children and then fail at it ourselves. Congress, with this new report as ammunition, needs to close these loopholes in the law, like, yesterday.