Washington, DC -- Congressman Duncan Hunter (CA-50) today introduced the “Stop Harmful Adolescent Marriage Act of 2019” (SHAM Act). Current immigration policy allows for U.S. citizens to petition their overseas spouse regardless of whether either partner is under the age of 18. While there are age restrictions of over 21 to petition for parents or siblings, a U.S. citizen who marries an underage individual in a recognized legal marriage can file their immigration paperwork and bring them into the U.S. 

“It is actually quite shameful that this type of legislation would even be necessary,” said Congressman Hunter. “Regardless, this loophole exists and the fact remains that current U.S. immigration policy reinforces the harmful condition of child brides. That is not who we are, we’re going to close it. This is an issue I believe everyone can support and work with me to get this addressed as soon as possible.”

By simply making the base petition age for all spouses to be a minimum of 18, the SHAM Act also would address the reverse situation where an underage U.S. citizen married to an individual of any age from another country, as long as the marriage is recognized as legal, would be allowed under current policy to bring their spouse into the U.S. Each year, 12 million girls are married under the age of 18.

Below are details from two news articles (cited) describing this issue in greater detail:

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/immigration-officials-let-8-000-child-brides-into-the-us-say-laws-will-need-to-change-to-stop-that

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/senators-seek-change-immigration-law-curb-child-marriages-n982426

The U.S. government approved more than 5,000 immigration requests for visas or green cards from foreign adults who asked to bring child spouses, or boys and girls under the age of 18, to the country from 2007 to 2017, according to the results of a Senate committee investigation.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which considers these types of requests for admission prior to the State Department's final approval of them, granted exactly 5,556 approvals to adults over a 10-year period, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee wrote in a report issued Friday.

Another 2,926 applications in which the minor asked to be admitted with his or her adult spouse were also approved. Approximately 200 minors filed petitions seeking to come to the U.S. with an underage spouse.

The majority of cases were older men seeking to emigrate with underage girls. Some of the most extreme examples consisted of a 71-year-old man who had married a 17-year-old woman in Guatemala and a 48-year-old who had married a 14-year-old in Jamaica. In 149 cases, the adult spouse was over the age of 40. In 28 cases, the adult was over the age of 50.

The new finding does not indicate that the Department of Homeland Security violated any laws. USCIS said in an email to the Washington Examiner Friday evening that it followed the Immigration and Nationality Act in making recommendations on each case. The immigration law does not set a minimum age for the spouse or fiancée of a person seeking admission to the U.S.

“As we have explained to lawmakers, while there are no statutory age requirements or legal provisions for petitioning for a spouse, USCIS does not approve fiancé visa petitions where either the beneficiary or petitioner’s age at marriage violates the laws of the U.S. state in which the couple plans to reside, nor does the agency approve spousal petitions where either the beneficiary or petitioner’s age at marriage violates the laws of the country in which they were married," said USCIS spokesman Michael Bars.

Bars said the agency requires birth date verification of the couple when an application is filed and implemented a system that automatically flags petitions of those involving a minor. The application is then forwarded to a special office within USCIS for consideration.

However, they said any changes to the standard by which they and the State Department consider applicants lies with Congress. "Ultimately, it is up to Congress to bring more certainty and legal clarity to this process for both petitioners and USCIS officers," Bars said.

CIS officials considered these types of requests by looking at whether the marriage would be legal in the state the couple planned to live in. States have varying marriage ages. Some, including Maryland, New York, and Virginia, allow children under the age of 16 years old to wed with court permission. The approximately 8,000 approved requests were among 3.5 million that were received in that decade span. Only 2.6 percent of requests are rejected by the State Department.

Still, the committee chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Associated Press it "indicated a problem ... a loophole that we need to close." The challenge will be how to create a federal law or policy that does not stomp out state laws.

Mexican nationals were granted the most approvals of "child bride" visas or green cards, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, the Dominican Republic, and Yemen.

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