WASHINGTON (AP) – Thousands of men's requests for children and young people to live in the United States were approved over the last decade, according to government records obtained by The Associated Press. In one case, a 49-year-old man applied for access to a 15-year-old girl.
The approvals are legal: The Immigration and Nationality Act does not set minimum age. And when weighing petitions for spouses or engaged, the US citizenship and immigration services go off if the marriage is legal in the home country and then whether the marriage would be legal in the state where the petitioner lives.
But the tasks ask whether the immigration system can enable forced marriage and how US laws can complicate the problem despite efforts to limit children and forced marriage. Marriage between adults and minors is not uncommon in the United States, and most states allow children to marry with certain limitations.
There were more than 5,000 cases of adults claiming on behalf of minors and nearly 3,000 examples of minors attempting to bring in older spouses or fiances, according to the information requested by the Senate's Homeland Committee in 201
Some victims of forced marriage say that the cover of an American passport combined with the salmon US law on marriage participates in part in the petitions.
"My passport destroyed my life," said Naila Amin, a double citizen from Pakistan who grew up in New York City.
She was forced to marry at 13 in Pakistan and applied for paper for her 26-year-old husband to come to the country.
"People die to come to America," she said. "I was a passport to him. Everyone wanted him here, and that was the way to do it."
Amin, now 29, said she was engaged to her first cousin Tariq when she was only 8 and he was 21. Eventually, the petition ended after she ran away. She said the trial cost her a childhood. She was in and out of foster homes and group homes, and it took a while to get her life on the right track.
"I was a child. I want to know: Why haven't any red flags been raised? Whoever treated this application they don't see on it? They don't believe?" Amin asked.
There is a two-step process for obtaining US immigration visas and green cards. Petitions are first dealt with by USCIS. If granted, they must be approved by the state. In total, 3.5 million petitions were received from fiscal year 2007 to 2017.
During that period, there were 5,556 approvals for those trying to get minor spouses or engaged and 2,926 approvals of minors trying to get older spouses according to the data. In addition, there were 204 for minors of minors. Petitions can be filed by US citizens or permanent residents.
"It indicates a problem. It indicates a dirt hole that we must close," Republican late Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told the AP.
In almost all cases, the girls were the younger person in the relationship. In 149 cases, the adult was older than 40, and in 28 cases, the adult was over 50, the committee found. Among the examples: In 2011, immigrant officials approved a 14-year petition for a 48-year-old husband 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 poisoning, but data from some states suggests that it is far from rare. State laws generally specify 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but each state permits exceptions. Most states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry if they have parental consent, and several states – including New York, Virginia and Maryland – allow children under 16 to marry court.
Fraidy Reiss, who is fighting forced marriage as head of a group called Unchained Last, examined data from her home state of New Jersey. She decided 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 at home and in immigration," she said.
Reiss – who says she was forced to abuse her orthodox Jewish family when she was 19 – said that often cases of child engagement through parental consolidation impose coercion, with a girl forced to marry her will.
"They are exposed to a lifetime of home and rape," she said. "And the government is not only complicated; they stamp this and say, go ahead."
The data was requested in 2017 by Johnson and Sen. Missouri. Claire McCaskill, the committee's top democrat. Johnson said it took a year to get the information and show that there should be a better system for tracking and knowing the petitions.
"Our immigration system can accidentally protect the abuse of women and children," the senators said in the letter.
The USCIS did not know how many of the approvals were granted by the State Department, but overall, only about 2.6 percent of marriage or engagement allegations were rejected.
The data shows separate data on 4,749 smaller spouses or engaged green cards to stay in the United States during the same 10-year period.
The head of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna, said in a letter to the committee that its request had raised issues and discussions within the Agency on what it could do to prevent forced minor marriage. The agency noted some problems in how the data was collected and resolved. Officials also created a flagging system that requires verification of the date of birth when a minor is discovered.
The country where most inquiries came from was Mexico, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, Dominican Republic and Yemen. Middle Eastern citizens had the highest percentage of overall approved petitions.