Continuing on the theme of last week’s blog post, the issue of underage marriage is not complete without looking at child marriages used to help a spouse legally migrate to the United States. These child marriages are arranged by their family to give foreigners the ability to legally immigrate to the United States, obtain a green card and become lawful permanent residents.  This is not an issue of illegal immigration, because both the federal immigration laws and state marriage laws recognize foreign marriages. Under the federal INA law (Immigration and Nationality Act), a U.S. child may petition for a visa for a spouse or fiancé living in another country, and a U.S. adult may petition for a visa for a minor spouse or fiancé living abroad. The INA does not establish a minimum age requirement, and does not require parental or judicial consent. The law recognizes that some religious or cultural practices do not permit the two persons to meet prior to marriage.

The U.S. Senate recently released a study dealing with immigration and underage child marriage which raised concerns about how the immigration system is enabling “forced child marriages.” The study reviewed an 11 year period and found that out of more than 3.5 million petitions, over 8,686 spouses or fiancées involved minors – some as young as 13.  Over the same time period, 4,749 minors in the United States on spousal or fiancé visas received green cards to become lawful permanent residents. The report also reviewed age differences, finding that many minors were marrying a person in their 40’s and even one petition for a 71 year old marrying a 17 year old. The report actually quotes a U.S. official “that it is easier for a minor to petition for immigration benefits for a spouse or fiancé than it is to receive aspirin on a school field trip, as the latter generally requires parental consent.“   The Senate report, “How the U.S. Immigration System Encourages Child Marriages”, concludes that “If we are truly serious about upholding stated U.S. policy to prevent child marriages and protect children from potential abuse and harm, Congress must reform the INA to prevent individuals from obtaining immigration benefits that facilitate child marriages.”

Opponents to child marriage are arguing that this immigration “loophole” in conjunction with State laws permitting young children to marry compound the problem, and allow children to be exploited.  Washington State law, RCW 26.04.020, does recognize marriages which are valid in any other jurisdiction, except marriages that are to close relatives, which does happen in immigrant marriages. Also, under Washington law, when either party to a marriage is incapable of consenting because of the lack of a sufficient understanding, or when the consent of either party is obtained by force or fraud, such marriage is voidable by judicial decree, RCW 26.02.140.  Families needing advice on Washington marriage laws can contact the Seattle Family lawyers at Molly B. Kenny, PLLC.

Molly B. Kenny
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Divorce and Child Custody Attorney Serving Bellevue and Seattle Washington
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