USCIS child marriage report: Laws that do not value girls are baked into our system

It was refreshing to see Nolan Rappaport’s commentary on a recent report from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. The report, “How the U.S. Immigration System Encourages Child Marriages,” confirmed what advocates, activists and survivors have suspected: U.S. immigration laws can, and do, facilitate child marriage and current state laws that permit children under age 18 to be married further enable that exploitation.

However, Rappaport — like the report and the news coverage that followed — frames this primarily as an immigration problem, or an exploitation of so-called “loopholes” in the immigration system. This is an oversimplification as well as a mischaracterization.

While the report focused on marriages where one party was not a U.S. citizen, it is important to note that over 200,000 minors married legally on U.S. soil between 2000 and 2015. Many of those minors are multigeneration American citizens.

To his credit, Rappaport noted that “most states do not have a minimum age for marriage if the child has parental or judicial consent,” and that “Delaware and New Jersey are the only states that prohibit marriage for anyone under the age of 18 with no exceptions.”

ADVERTISEMENT

We must take care not to characterize child marriage as an imported problem because that not only misses the point, but also runs the risk of doing great harm to the real girls whose lives are forever changed.

Until this country looks inward, and addresses the laws that, until quite recently, existed in every state we will not end child marriage here or abroad.

We must also be cautious in blaming only certain cultures for importing child marriage. We know from U.S. marital records that this is not the case and it only misrepresents a symptom to be the problem itself.

Child marriage is a symptom of the lower value we place on girls.

Girls are not passports, but neither are they political footballs to be tossed around when it becomes politically expedient.

Laws that permit children to be married are rooted in a gendered discrimination that is baked right into our legal system. That discrimination is a part of what makes it so hard to change U.S. laws and policy to effectively address child marriage: Marriage is seen as inherently protective of women and girls, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

ADVERTISEMENT

American-born child brides make up a small fraction of the global total, but that doesn’t make it any less of a human rights violation: Forcing or coercing anyone, much less a minor, into marriage is a human rights abuse in and of itself. But as Rappaport notes, child marriage also increases the likelihood of other human rights abuses, regardless of where she’s from: Girls who are married as children are much more likely to experience domestic violence, much less likely than their peers to complete secondary school and are often powerless to make basic decisions about their lives.

Still, the report commissioned in 2017 by Senator Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces GOP senator: Gun control debate 'hasn't changed much at all' back home GOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation MORE (R-Wis.), and then-Senator Clair McCaskill (D-Mo.), on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, yields some alarming findings:

  • More often than not, it is U.S. adult male citizens that are marrying minors overseas and bringing them to the United States to live. In fact, the report revealed that the number of U.S. adult citizens who petitioned for minor foreign spouses and fiancé(e)s is almost double that of U.S. citizen minor petitioners.
  • The age difference between spouses can be startling: at least 400 of the approved petitions involved U.S. citizens that were twice the age of their foreign spouse or fiancée. Many of the adult U.S. citizens were in their 40s and 50s, and in one case a 68-year-old citizen successfully petitioned for a 16-year-old foreign spouse. In another, a 71-year-old citizen petitioned for a 17-year-old foreign spouse.
  • Experts interviewed for the report noted that often in their work with survivors, parents were not only involved and consenting to their child’s marriage but forced the marriage in the first place. The report included an interview with Naila Amin, a U.S. citizen. At the age of 13, Naila was flown to Pakistan by her parents and on that trip, she was forced to marry a man almost twice her age. She stated that she did not recall petitioning for a spousal visa, though later became aware that paperwork had been filed for him without her knowledge or consent.

One of the report’s major conclusions, therefore — that parental consent should be required for a minor to petition for a spouse or fiancé visa — is ill-informed and will do little to protect vulnerable minors. We see this in the domestic sphere, as well: Most states currently have laws permitting child marriage with a parent’s consent. As recently as 2016, not one state or federal law prohibited child marriage in the United States without exceptions. Some of those legal exceptions include if a parent consents or if the minor is pregnant.

Some states that have statutory rape laws prohibiting sex between adults and minors may even refrain from prosecution if the perpetrator and victim wed. As Rappaport notes, progress is being made (slowly) at the state level to eliminate these exceptions and still, too many policymakers still see child marriage as an “over there” problem and do not see the need to act over here.

Addressing child marriage through loopholes in the immigration system or through parental consent are all stop-gap measures. Solutions to child marriage are more complex than a few tweets or laws alone. We know that preventing child marriage requires sustained work with families as well as strong legal frameworks.

The U.S. government already has a good template for tackling complex problems like child marriage with comprehensive solutions in the form of the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, which has never been funded at a level to complete the work it promises.

The USCIS report is welcome as it broadens our understanding of the complex ways U.S. laws and policies protect or facilitate child marriage. But the fact that the report seems to portray girls married as minors simply as gateways to U.S. citizenship and the benefits of life in the United States is telling. Not only does this diminish the larger problem brought to bear by the data, in so doing, the authors err in the same way as those they accuse of taking advantage of our system in the first place: They see girls not as whole people with rights that have been violated, but as a means to an end, pathways to citizenship and nothing more.

Rachel Clement is Policy Advocate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which advances gender equity, inclusion and the alleviation of poverty worldwide. She leads two civil society coalitions: Girls Not Brides USA and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.