U.S. Doing Nothing Visible about Forced Marriages Leading to Visas

By David North on October 24, 2011

The United States seems to be doing nothing about a problem that Great Britain is dealing with: forced marriages leading to fraudulent visas.

As noted in an earlier blog, that nation has been taking steps, perhaps halting ones, for the last three years to combat forced-marriage-creating immigration visas.

The predominant pattern in the UK is that a teenage woman in an immigrant community, usually from the Indian Subcontinent, is shipped off against her will to, say, Pakistan, where family pressures (sometimes violent ones) force her to marry a co-ethnic without UK credentials, and then she causes a visa to be issued to him allowing him to migrate to Britain. The new spouse, usually older and often wealthier than his "bride", may treat her well, or he may be violent with her.

The British government is concerned on the dual grounds of the violation of the rights of the resident teenager, and the immigration consequences.

In America we have barely noticed the practice at all, much less its immigration implications, and it is only because a human rights organization in Northern Virginia, the Tahirih Justice Center, has completed a study on the matter that we know anything about it all.

Tahirih, I hasten to add, is not a restrictionist organization; it is concerned about the human rights of the young women involved and its over-arching goal in life is "protecting immigrant women and girls fleeing violence." It notes the frequent immigration consequences of these forced marriages as a byproduct, and is not the principal area of concern in its recently released report "Forced Marriage in Immigrant Communities in the United States: 2011 National Survey Results".

Incidences of forced marriages – like those of child abuse – are hidden deeply within families and information is hard to obtain. Further, in the case of forced marriages, the young women are usually enmeshed in cultures that pay little attention to the rights of women, and much to the power of the family elders. Further, most of the social service and government agencies surveyed by Tahirih have little knowledge of such matters, and many are leery of trying to bring the concept of equal rights into "culturally charged" situations. And, of course, there is often a language barrier as well.

So it was difficult for Tahirih to get much information, but the report, of a survey of some 500 agencies, does show:

  • the predominant religion of those forced into these marriages was that of the Muslims;

  • the leading nations were Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Mexico;

  • many agencies admitted that they had few tools to handle the challenge, and

  • most said that there were probably many more such marriages that they did not
    know about.

Further, to quote the report "Over half of the respondents (52%) who provided information on the citizenship status of forced marriage victims said they had encountered at least one individual who was a US citizen at the time the forced marriage was threatened or took place."

A citizen, even a teenager, can seek an immigration visa for her new spouse under U.S. law, though the person signing the required financial support document (Form I-864) has to be at least 18. A female citizen under the age of 18 could be forced into a marriage, could live overseas with her "spouse," until her 18th birthday, and then file for his admission as an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen.

My assumption would be that these young citizens were either born here, or became citizens when their parents naturalized. While there are provisions in the INA for people with green cards to marry and bring their spouses to the U.S., this involves a wait of several years, while spouses of citizens have no waiting periods.

As to the extent of forced marriages known to the survey respondents, Tahirih used a range, rather than a hard number, when it asked about the number of forced marriages (or threatened ones) known to the individuals responding. The total range was from about 1,500 to about 3,000, but since many respondents felt that there were many other such marriages not known to them, the real total must be much larger.

The report, apparently, was just scratching the surface, as far as numbers are concerned, but its description of how young women (and once in a while a young man) are forced into these marriages are disturbing. One reason why a young woman may not ultimately resist such a marriage, for example, is because she fears that if she does not marry, her even younger sister will be forced to do so. Some young women have even faced death threats if they did not go along with the program.

Regarding the phenomenon generally, the report quotes one of its respondents as saying: "The United States has no real laws or agencies that work on this issue [of forced marriage]. . . we often look to what the UK has, there is nothing similar in the US."

And if the nation's social service agencies are lacking in knowledge and capacity on this issue, as the report indicates, you can be sure that our immigration agencies are still further behind.