Fraidy Reiss started the organization, Unchained at Last, in 2011 to push for an end to child and forced marriages after her own horrific experience of being forced to marry a violent man at the age of 19.
Since then she has found that federal immigration law loopholes have allowed the practice of forced child marriages to continue in the United States. According to Reiss, the U.S. immigration system actually encourages child marriages.
A Senate Homeland Security Committee report released last week said that the U.S. government has approved thousands of requests by older men to bring both child brides and child fiancées into the United States.
Reiss and her organization are trying to end the practice she hopes that the Homeland Security Committee report will act as a catalyst for needed change in immigration laws.
According to Reiss:
“Americans think of this as a problem that happens somewhere else, and I think that’s where we get the disconnect.”
“Everywhere we go, legislators, staffers, domestic violence professionals are surprised we allow child marriages in almost every U.S. state.”
“The bigger question is: Why is this happening for something that seems like such a simple fix? How is it that our United States government is essentially facilitating child marriages?”
Under federal law there is no minimum age requirement for visas for spouses or fiancées.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, approves the visas which are issued by the State Department. And USCIS only looks at whether the age at marriage “violates the laws of the place of celebration or the public policy of the U.S. state in which the couple plans to reside.”
And New Jersey and Delaware are the only states that outlaw marriages to girls under the age of 18. Between 2007 and 2017, USCIS approved more than 5,500 petitions by adults to bring minor spouses or fiancées to the U.S. and nearly 3,000 approvals for minors trying to bring in older spouses or fiancés, according to the Senate report. Girls were the minors in 95 percent of the cases, according to the data.
In one case, a 71-year-old requested entry for a 17-year-old spouse, and in another, a 68-year-old petitioned for a 16-year-old to come into the country, according to the Senate report. Both requests were approved.
Other approvals include a person age 55 petitioning for a 13-year-old and several people well into their 40’s requesting spouses as young as 14 or 15.
“The United States condemns child marriages overseas, but we are not taking the steps to condemn it within our own borders,” Reiss said. “It’s an awareness problem.”
One former official said that lapses happen at the embassies and consulates where many of the requests are reviewed. According to him:
“What ends up happening is a lot of these embassies are told to just approve it and move on. Your bosses expect you to push these things through. They don’t want to deal with letters from Congress or calls from family members.”
Michael Bars, a spokesman for USCIS, said the agency is taking steps to deal with the problem. But, he said,
“Ultimately, it is up to Congress to bring more certainty and legal clarity to this process for both petitioners and USCIS officers.”
A State Department spokesperson said they take the issue very seriously.
“We are committed to protecting the rights of children and combating forced marriage,” the spokesperson said. “We will not issue a visa until an applicant has proven that he or she is legally eligible to receive one. If an applicant needs additional screening or review for whatever reason, we will not issue the visa until that screening or review is complete.”
Reiss says she thinks “simple, plain old sexism” is the reason that the issue isn’t taken seriously, “these are mostly male legislators we are going to.”
She added, “There will be a little more scrutiny on each of the cases just because of the report coming out, but it doesn’t go far enough. We are incredibly hopeful Congress will take action to make this simple fix so that only adults can sponsor visas.”
Reiss said that as long as lawmakers fail to address the issue, she will keep on fighting for change.
“I’m going to continue pushing and insisting that every state outlaw child marriage,” she said, then adding:
“I’m going to keep screaming until the federal government is not complicit in child marriages anymore. It’s 2019 for crying out loud. Child marriage is an ancient relic from our sexist past, and it doesn’t have any place in our society.”