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By 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. And in weighing petitions for spouses or fiancees, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and then whether the marriage would be legal in the state where the petitioner lives.

But 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 United States, 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.

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 passport ruined my life,” said Naila Amin, a dual citizen from Pakistan who grew up in New York City.

She was forcibly married at 13 in Pakistan and applied for papers for her 26-year-old husband to come to the country.

“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 to her first cousin Tariq when she was just 8 and he was 21. The petition was eventually terminated after she ran away. She said the ordeal cost her a childhood. She was in and out of foster care and group homes, and it took a while to get her life on track.

“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.

There is a two-step process for obtaining U.S. immigration visas and green cards. Petitions are first considered by USCIS. If granted, they must be approved by the State Department. Overall, there were 3.5 million petitions received from budget years 2007 through 2017.

Over that period, there were 5,556 approvals for those seeking to bring minor spouses or fiancees, and 2,926 approvals by minors seeking to bring in older spouses, according to the data. Additionally, there were 204 for minors by minors. Petitions can be filed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

“It indicates a problem. It indicates a loophole that we need to close,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told the AP.

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, the committee found. Among the examples: 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.

There are no nationwide statistics on child marriage, but data from a few states suggests it is far from rare. State laws generally set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, yet every state allows exceptions. Most states let 16- and 17-year-olds marry if they have parental consent, and several states — including New York, Virginia and Maryland — allow children under 16 to marry with court permission.

Fraidy Reiss, who campaigns against coerced marriage as head of a group called Unchained at Last, researched data from her home state of New Jersey. She determined that nearly 4,000 minors, mostly girls, were married in the state from 1995 to 2012, including 178 who were under 15.

“This is a problem both domestically and in terms of immigration,” she said.

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.

“They are subjected to a lifetime of domestic servitude and rape,” she said. “And the government is not only complicit; they’re stamping this and saying: Go ahead.”

The data was requested in 2017 by Johnson and then-Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the committee’s top Democrat. Johnson said it took a year to get the information, showing there needs to be a better system to track and vet the petitions.

“Our immigration system may unintentionally shield the abuse of women and children,” the senators said in the letter.

USCIS didn’t know how many of the approvals were granted by the State Department, but overall only about 2.6 percent of spousal or fiancee claims are rejected.

Separately, the data show some 4,749 minor spouses or fiancees received green cards to live in the U.S. over that same 10-year period.

The head of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna, said in a letter to the committee that their request had raised questions and discussion within the agency on what it can do to prevent forced minor marriages. The agency noticed some issues in how the data was collected and has resolved them. Officials also created a flagging system that requires verification of the birthdate whenever a minor is detected.

The country where most requests came from was Mexico, followed by Pakistan, Jordan, the Dominican Republic and Yemen. Middle Eastern nationals had the highest percentage of overall approved petitions.

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Top elections cop says she’s ‘gravely concerned’ about foreign government efforts to intervene

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The top U.S. campaign finance official said Friday she’s “gravely concerned about the efforts of foreign governments to try to intervene” in American elections and issued a fresh warning that 2020 candidates, including President Donald Trump, are barred from accepting “anything of value” from foreign nationals and governments.

In an exclusive interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, said the law governing the issue is “pretty straightforward.”

“Anyone in the United States is not allowed to accept anything of value from a foreign national. Particularly a foreign government in connection with an election,” Weintraub said.

Her comments came just days after Trump said he’d consider taking information on opponents from other countries.

While Weintraub said she was not responding to “any particular candidate,” she added that she was “gravely concerned about the efforts of foreign governments to try to intervene in our election, to try and undermine our democracy.”

“The foreign governments that we have seen very bad actions from in the past are not likely to cease their efforts going forward unless the entire American government speaks with one voice and says this is unacceptable and we’re not going to put up with it,” she said.

“This is not an attempt for someone outside of the country to exercise some right to voice their opinion, they’re trying to undermine our democracy, they’re trying to sow chaos, they’re trying to make Americans feel disenchanted with our democracy and not bother to go to the polling stations in some cases,” Weintraub added. “This is really dangerous stuff.”

Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview excerpt that aired Wednesday that he thinks he’d “take it” if a foreign government came to him and offered dirt on an opponent. The comment arose while the men were discussing why the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., didn’t go to the FBI after he spoke with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election.

On Thursday night, Weintraub posted a letter to Twitter, cautioning in clear language that it’s against the law to accept “anything of value” from foreign governments and individuals related to an election.

”This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign government has been considered unacceptable since the beginning of our nation,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Trump appeared to walk back his original comments in an interview with Fox News on Friday, saying that he’d only “look at it” to determine if it’s “bad,” but then, give it to law enforcement.

“I don’t think anybody would present me with anything because they know how much I love the country,” Trump said. “If I was and, of course, you have to look at it, because if you don’t look at it you won’t know it’s bad, but, of course, you give it to the FBI or report to the attorney general or somebody like that.”

“If I don’t listen, you are not going to know. If I thought anybody was incorrect or badly stated I’d report it to attorney general, the FBI, I’d report it to law enforcement,” he said.

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NBC announces lineup of Democrats for each night of first 2020 debate

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NBC News on Friday announced the lineups of Democratic presidential candidates who are appearing on stage this month on each night of the first debate of the 2020 race.

The first group of 10 appearing on Wednesday, June 26:

  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
  • Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
  • Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro
  • Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

The second group of 10 appearing on Thursday, June 27:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
  • Author Marianne Williamson
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell of California
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado.

Where the candidates will stand on stage each night has not yet been determined.

To decide the matchups, candidates’ names were drawn manually at NBC News’ headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. One representative from each of the qualifying campaigns was invited to attend the draw along with officials from the Democratic National Committee. Campaign representatives saw the paper slip with their respective candidate’s name on it before it was folded and placed inside the box.

A representative from NBC News Standards & Practices conducted the draw.

Candidates were divided into two groups: those who polled on average at or above 2 percent through midnight on Wednesday, June 12, and those who polled on average below 2 percent through midnight on Wednesday.

A random draw then took place, to create two separate groupings of 10.

NBC News then designated each grouping to a specific debate night.

DNC chairman Tom Perez told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson on Friday before the draw that he wanted the committee to avoid grouping lesser-known candidates together on one night and high-profile candidates on the other.

“The purpose of that is to be consistent with our principle of trying to be fair to everybody but also, it gets to the point of your question, so that we have maximum eyeballs both nights,” Perez said.

The determination of the lineups came a day after the DNC announced the 20 candidates who met the threshold to appear on stage for the two-night event. The debate, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, will take place on June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.

After the matchups were announced, candidates who qualified for the debate celebrated on social media and elsewhere, with some hoping for the chance to differentiate themselves to voters.

Gillibrand, for instance, lagged in the polls and struggled up until recently to meet the debate’s individual donor threshold. She released a statement Friday touting her record as President Donald Trump’s “kryptonite.”

“President Trump’s kryptonite is a strong, independent woman who speaks her mind, takes on tough fights for families and women, and has a record of actually getting things done, and that’s exactly what they’ll see from me on the debate stage,” she said. “The debates are the first chance for voters across the country to tune in and compare the ideas of the contenders, and I’m honored to have the opportunity.”

She also told NBC News that the night she’s on “actually doesn’t matter to me, I really admire and enjoy all my colleagues.”

Delaney said in a tweet that he’s looking to spar with his fellow Democrats, particularly Warren, on issues and not “personality.”

“I am pleased to be sharing the debate stage with many strong candidates, particularly Senator Warren who, like me, is talking about new ideas,” he tweeted from his official Twitter account. “I look forward to a debate on issues and solutions, not personality and politics.”

Sanders’ campaign said the Vermont lawmaker is also eager to jump in the ring.

“This is a terrific lineup because there will be a real debate over the key set of choices in this Democratic primary,” said Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in a statement. “We look forward to hearing other candidates outline their visions for the country and plans to fully guarantee all people the right to health care, housing, education, a clean environment, and the freedom of basic economic rights.”

The historically large field of candidates includes a slew of U.S. senators, a handful of mayors, a former vice president, longtime legislators and some political novices.

The DNC set two ways for candidates to qualify for the debate — fundraising and polling. To make the stage, candidates needed to have either at least 1 percent support in three qualifying polls, or provide evidence of at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 different donors in at least 20 states.

The debate will air live across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m ET both nights. The debate will also stream online free on NBC News’ digital platforms, including NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News Mobile App and OTT apps, in addition to Telemundo’s digital platforms.

NBC News’ Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Telemundo’s José Diaz-Balart will moderate the debate.



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Supreme Court denies Flint officials’ request to block lawsuit over water crisis

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WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday denied a request from four Flint, Michigan officials who asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block lower court rulings that said they could be sued over lead contamination in the water supply.

Their motion was directed to Justice Sotomayor, who handles such appeals from that region. Without explanation, as is the usual practice, she denied their request.

The officials involved in the water crisis argued that they should be immune from a liability suit brought by a Flint woman, Shari Guertin, who said she and her minor daughter suffered injuries from drinking and bathing in water contaminated with lead. After a federal judge refused to throw the lawsuit out, the officials appealed.

A three-judge panel ruled against them in January, saying the officials “created the Flint Water environmental disaster and then intentionally attempted to cover up their grievous decision.” The full Sixth Circuit declined last month to take the case, leaving the panel decision intact.

The four asked the Supreme Court Thursday to put a hold on those rulings, which would have blocked the lawsuits while they pursued a full-blown Supreme Court appeal. It is that request that Justice Sotomayor denied.

The civil lawsuit is separate from any criminal cases. On Thursday, Michigan prosecutors dropped all pending charges against a group of state and local officials accused of a variety of crimes arising from the water crisis.



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