Our girls are not passports; they are human beings deserving of freedom and choice, especially when it comes to marriage.
Over two years ago, the U.S. government published a report titled “How the U.S. Immigration System Encourages Child Marriages.” The report highlighted inadequate policies that, to this day, fail to protect vulnerable girls and allow child marriage to continue in the United States.
What the data revealed was shocking: Well over 8,500 U.S. visa petitions involving minors were approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS) between the fiscal years 2007-2017. Most of the time, the underage party was a girl; and, in some instances, they were involved in successful petitions for adult foreign spouses—despite a law already in place that should have prevented such approvals.
I was one of those cases. I immigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was four years old. Raised in Astoria, Queens, I grew into what my parents would call a “westernized” teenager, despite the fact that I had technically been engaged by the age of 8. My parents didn’t like my westernized ways and physically hurt me to get me to meet their expectations of how a daughter should act.
This ultimately led to me being put into foster care, but it did not bring safety, nor peace. Not only was the concept of foster care foreign to me, but there was also no cultural competency and not a single Muslim foster home. I felt like no one understood me. Eventually, I fled foster care, as many kids do, and returned to my parents. I was then, at the young age of 15, forced to marry my cousin during a family trip abroad.
The visa petition for my so-called husband was filed with and approved by the USCIS when I was still a minor. I struggled and suffered for years as a result of this experience. This is something no other child should have to go through and to this day, I still can’t believe the law allowed it to happen to me.
The visa petition for my so-called husband was filed with and approved by the USCIS when I was still a minor. This is something no other child should have to go through and to this day, I still can’t believe the law allowed it to happen to me.
Eventually, thanks to my own grit and determination, I was able to escape the marriage and restart my education. I now have a degree in human resources and at the age of 26, I founded the Naila Amin Foundation. Since 2015, I have been dedicated to campaigning for the end of child marriage and plan to open the first shelter in the U.S. for women and girls fleeing forced marriage and honor-based violence.
The U.S. has a well documented child marriage problem. A shocking fact is that in the majority of child marriage cases, it is adult U.S. citizen men petitioning for foreign child brides and fiancés. Many of these adult U.S. citizens are in their 40s and 50s. Bluntly put, our laws facilitate predatory behavior by U.S. citizens and put girls in the U.S. and abroad at risk of child marriage.
For those who might think that sending young girls to the U.S. for marriage could be the doorway to a life of greater freedom and safety, please understand that child marriage is a trap. It has been shown that child marriage leads to devastating lifelong consequences including domestic and sexual violence, isolation, curtailed education and economic hardship. We should not assume that a girl born and raised abroad is by default better off simply because she is in the U.S., despite being separated and cut off from everyone and everything she knows and married to an older man.
In partnership with others, including survivor advocates from across the country, I have been campaigning state by state for years to change our own out of date minimum age of marriage laws. The most recent victory in New York was a hard-won battle but I am happy that my home state has finally enacted Naila’s Law and set the minimum age of marriage at 18 without exceptions—only the sixth state in the U.S. to do so. This has made me feel like I can heal.
I often wonder: How many more girls we will sacrifice? Our girls are not passports; they are human beings deserving of freedom and choice, especially when it comes to marriage.
I fight everyday so no more Nailas are born.
We must stop being hypocritical when it comes to what we tell other countries to do and what we allow to happen here in the United States. We need federal and state action to address child marriage and protect girls everywhere.