Child Marriage Supported by US Immigration Policy.

That is the provocative title of a  reportjust released by the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  It discloses statistics from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing that immigrant petitions based on marriage to a US citizen have been approved for spouses as young as 13 years old.  Girls were the younger party in 95% of the immigrant petitions involving underage marriage.  Some petitions based upon marriage with a minor involved huge age disparities, such as a 71 year old US citizen who petitioned for his 17 year old wife from Guatemala.  To understand how this could happen, we need some background.  


The first step in obtaining a green card (lawful permanent resident status) for a foreign spouse is for the US citizen spouse to file an I-130 Petition for Alien Relativewith the USCIS, which is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. The I-130 is pretty straightforward; the US citizen just has to show that he is a US citizen, he and spouse are legally married under the laws of the place where the marriage ceremony took place, and any previous marriages were terminated by death, dissolution or annulment.  In the vast majority of cases the USCIS accepts the foreign marriage as good enough for US immigration purposes.  (There are a very few exceptions—for example polygamy, which although valid in some countries violates US public policy.) 


Once the USCIS approves the petition there are two possible courses of action.  If the foreign spouse is in the US in a proper status (there are complications here that we won't explore, such as what happens if the foreign spouse enters the US without inspection) she can choose to 'adjust status,' which means to ask Homeland Security to transform her from  a nonimmigrant to an immigrant (green card holder) while she remains in the US.  If the foreign spouse is outside the US she would apply for an immigrant visa, which involves review by the Department of State.  Regardless of which path the prospective immigrant chooses she will need a medical examination and the US citizen spouse must prepare an affidavit of support.  


In the I-864 Affidavit of Supportthe US citizen spouse demonstrates that he has an income at least 125% of the US poverty level as determined annually by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Assets can sometimes be used in place of income.  The US citizen must also give a legally-enforceable promise to support the foreign spouse, and to reimburse any governmental agency that may in the future grant her means-tested public benefit.  It is ironic that although there is no minimum age for the foreign spouse, Congress requiredthat the US citizen petitioner be at least 18 years old to submit the required affidavit of support, without which no immigrant visa or adjustment of status for a spouse can be finalised.  


Many US statesdo allow marriage for minors—that is, for persons under the age of 18.  Typically marriage for a minor between the ages of 16 and 18 is allowed only with parental permission; some states allow children under 16 to marry if they receive judicial approval.  These protections obviously do not apply to persons who marry outside the US.


Current US immigration law allows US citizens to go to foreign countries, marry a 

child bride even against her will, and then petition to bring her to the United States.  This in spite of the lawrequiring the State Department to


establish and implement a multi-year, multi-sectoral strategy—

(1) to prevent child marriage;

(2) to promote the empowerment of girls at risk of child marriage in developing countries;

(3) that should address the unique needs, vulnerabilities, and potential of girls younger than 18 years of age in developing countries 


The Senate staff report makes for grim reading.  Surely the United States, with its stated policy of empowering girls and preventing forced marriages, should take steps to ban US citizen petitioners from importing child brides.  The United Kingdom does not allow immigrant visa applications for spouses under 18 (unfortunately a statute raising that age to 21 was judicially set aside in 2008).  The US should do at least as much, to ensure that Congress’ elevated words about preventing child marriage actually make a difference in the lives of young girls.  


Mari Bush