Republican senators introduced legislation Wednesday that would close a loophole in U.S. immigration laws that can easily be exploited to enable child marriages.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), joined with Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Tom Cotton of Arkansas to introduce the bill that would ban spousal and fiancé immigration benefits if one of the parties applying for the benefits is under the age of 18.
“A visa to enter the United States is a privilege, and this straightforward reform will help close a loophole that can lead to the abuse and exploitation of children,” Johnson said in a press release statement. “I hope my colleagues will join me to advance this commonsense legislation.”
Key findings of the report included that, between 2007-2017, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved immigration petitions for nearly 8,700 spouses and fiancés in marriages involving children under the age of 18. The younger person in the marriage was a girl in 95 percent of the cases.
Additionally, USCIS granted petitions to couples with significant age differences. According to the staff report, “USCIS approved 149 petitions involving a minor with an adult spouse or fiancé who was more than 40 years old.”
The report also found that, during the same ten-year period, USCIS approved green cards to more than 4,700 minors in the U.S. on spousal or fiancé visas, and allowed them to become lawful permanent U.S. residents.
“Child marriage is a serious problem which puts young girls, in particular, at risk,” Ernst said in the joint statement.
“[W]e must address this massive loophole in our immigration system with common sense solutions, and that’s exactly what our legislation does,” she continued, “require both parties be 18 years-old in order to obtain spousal immigration benefits.”
“Child marriage, almost always between a male adult and a female minor, can rob young girls of their education, personal development, and physical and mental health,” Cotton also said. “Unfortunately, U.S. law currently grants immigration benefits to individuals seeking adult-minor unions. Our immigration laws shouldn’t be used to encourage child marriage, and our bill would put an end to this exploitative practice.”
GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin authored a companion bill in the House.
“The committee’s eye-opening report shows the gruesome reality that people manipulate our immigration system to enter into child marriages,” Sensenbrenner said in the press statement. “I’m proud to lead the effort in the House to stop the exploitation of children through our immigration laws and am grateful to Senator Johnson for his work uncovering this disturbing information.”
In February, USCIS released guidance that clarifies agency requirements on spousal petitions that involve minors. The guidance emphasizes to adjudicators that marriages involving a minor should be flagged for special attention.
USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said that while the new guidance provides “steps in the right direction, ultimately it is up to Congress to bring more certainty and legal clarity to this process for both petitioners and USCIS officers.”