WASHINGTON — Thousands of requests by men to bring in child and adolescent brides to live in the United States were approved over the past 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. And in weighing petitions for spouses or fiancees, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether 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 data raises 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 United States, 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 passport ruined my life," said Naila Amin, a dual citizen from Pakistan who grew up in New York City.
She was forcibly married at 13 in Pakistan and applied for papers 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. They all wanted him here, and that was the way to do it."
Amin, now 29, said she was betrothed to her first cousin Tariq when she was just 8 and he was 21. The petition was eventually terminated after she ran away. 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.
There is a two-step process for obtaining U.S. immigration visas and green cards. Petitions are first considered by USCIS. 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 fiancees, 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 problem. 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 over 50, the committee found. Among the examples: In 2011, immigration officials approved a 14-year-old's petition for a 48-year-old 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.
Fraidy Reiss, who campaigns against coerced marriage as head of a group called Unchained at Last, researched data from her home state of 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 a 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 was 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.
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 fiancee claims are rejected.
Separately, the data show some 4,749 minor spouses or fiancees received green cards to live in the U.S. over that same 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.
The agency noticed some issues in how the data was collected and has resolved them. Officials also created a flagging system that requires verification of the birthdate whenever a minor is detected.
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.