Watch the CBSN Originals documentary, "Speaking Frankly: Child Marriage," in the video player above.
Naila Amin was just 13 years old when her parents took her from her home in Queens, New York, to Pakistan so that she could marry her 26-year-old cousin. At the time, the legal age for marriage in her home state was 14.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, there isfor a person to sponsor a spouse or fiancée to come to the U.S. In practice, this means an American child can sponsor their foreign spouse provided the marriage is legal in both the country where it happened and the state where the couple intends to live. Amin's parents reasoned that if they married her shortly before her 14th birthday, she could file for her new husband's visa right away.
"I was a passport to this man. I was nothing but a passport," she said in the CBSN Originals documentary, "." Amin, who is now 30, said she endured abusive treatment before she escaped and got a divorce.
Between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 minors were married across the United States; 87% were girls and 86% of them married adults. Marriage laws in America vary state by state, but immigration remains a federal issue. Some advocates and lawmakers argue this puts children at risk for being forced into marriage.
"Child marriage, almost always between a male adult and a female minor, can rob young girls of their education, personal development, and physical and mental health," said Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. "Our immigration laws shouldn't be used to encourage child marriage."
Last March, Cotton and fellow Republican Senators Ron Johnson and Joni Ernst introduced a bill that would eliminate visa loopholes that allow children to petition for a foreign spouse. The bill followed a report by the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that found that from 2007 to 2017 there were more than 5,500 cases of adults petitioning for a spouse or fiancé visa for a minor, and nearly 3,000 cases of a minor petitioning for a spouse or fiancé visa for an adult.
"A visa to enter the United States is a privilege," wrote Senator Johnson at the time. "This straightforward reform will help close a loophole that can lead to the abuse and exploitation of children."
Advocates note that America's immigration laws and its foreign policy are out of sync on the issue of.
"The United States government has some really beautifully written policies on child marriage articulating that it's a human rights abuse," said Rachel Clement, chair of Girls not Brides USA. "In U.S. foreign policy we don't support child early or forced marriage." But, she notes, the role of states' rights can make those policies difficult to navigate.
"You have to be 21 right now to petition for your parent to get a visa," said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director at Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States. "But you could be 8 and petition for your 80-year-old husband. I mean, that's ridiculous."
Since being introduced, the Senate bill to close the loophole, S.742, has languished in the Judiciary Committee. According to the latest update, the bill hasn't made any progress since March.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Sen. Ron Johnson is a Republican, not a Democrat.