By COLLEEN LONG

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Thousands of requests by men to bring in child and adolescent brides to live in the United States were approved over the past decade, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press. In one case, a 49-year-old man applied for admission for a 15-year-old girl.

The approvals are legal: The Immigration and Nationality Act does not set minimum age requirements for the person making the request or for that person’s spouse or fiancee. By contrast, to bring in a parent from overseas, a petitioner has to be at least 21 years old.

And in weighing petitions, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the spouse or fiancee’s home country and then whether the marriage would be legal in the state where the petitioner lives.

The data raises questions about whether the immigration system may be enabling forced marriage and about how U.S. laws may be compounding the problem despite efforts to limit child and forced marriage. Marriage between adults and minors is not uncommon in the U.S., and most states allow children to marry with some restrictions.

There were more than 5,000 cases of adults petitioning on behalf of minors and nearly 3,000 examples of minors seeking to bring in older spouses or fiances, according to the data requested by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in 2017 and compiled into a report. The approval is the first of a two-step visa process, and USCIS said it has taken steps to better flag and vet the petitions.

Some victims of forced marriage say the lure of a U.S. passport combined with lax U.S. marriage laws are partly fueling the petitions.

“My sunshine was snatched from my life,” said Naila Amin, a dual citizen born in Pakistan who grew up in New York City.

She was forcibly married at 13 in Pakistan and later applied for papers for her 26-year-old husband to come to the U.S. at the behest of her family. She was forced for a time to live in Pakistan with him, where, she said, she was sexually assaulted and beaten. She came back to the U.S., and he was to follow.

“People die to come to America,” she said. “I was a passport to him. They all wanted him here, and that was the way to do it.”

Amin, now 29, said she was betrothed when she was just 8 and he was 21. The petition she submitted after her marriage was approved by immigration officials, but he never came to the country, in part because she ran away from home. She said the ordeal cost her a childhood. She was in and out of foster care and group homes.”I was a child. I want to know: Why weren’t any red flags raised? Whoever was processing this application, they don’t look at it? They don’t think?” Amin asked.

Fraidy Reiss, who campaigns against coerced marriage as head of a group called Unchained at Last, has scores of similar anecdotes: An underage girl was brought to the U.S. as part of an arranged marriage and eventually was dropped at the airport and left there after she miscarried. Another was married at 16 overseas and was forced to bring an abusive husband.

In nearly all the cases, the girls were the younger person in the relationship. In 149 instances, the adult was older than 40, and in 28 cases the adult was over 50. In 2011, immigration officials approved a 14-year-old’s petition for a 48-year-old spouse in Jamaica. A petition from a 71-year-old man was approved in 2013 for his 17-year-old wife in Guatemala.

Reiss, who says she was forced into an abusive marriage by her Orthodox Jewish family when she was 19, said that often cases of child marriage via parental consent involve coercion, with a girl forced to marry against her will.