March 13 (UPI) -- Republican lawmakers introduced a Senate bill Wednesday to close a U.S. immigration loophole that allows minors to be exposed to child marriage.
Under current U.S. law, a child regardless of age can petition for a visa for a spouse or fiancé living in another country, or a U.S. adult for a minor spouse living abroad as long as their marriages are legal in the country of origin.
The new bill -- proposed by senators Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Ron Johnson, R-Wisc. -- would set the minimum age for a person applying for such petitions for a spouse or fiancé at 18.
A report from the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in January found that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved 8,686 marriage-related visas involving minors over the past 11 years.
Of those, two of the petitioners were as young as 13, 38 were 14 years old; 269 were 15 years old; 1,768 were 16 years old; and the remaining 6,609 were 17 years old. The report said girls made up the younger party in 95 percent of the cases.
"My committee's investigation and report on the use of fiancé and spousal visas to facilitate child marriage and human trafficking has highlighted these problems and will hopefully result in passage of legislation to help prevent this abuse in the future," Johnson said in a statement earlier this month.
New Jersey and Delaware are the only states that outlaw all marriages of children under 18. Most other states allow the practice, but often with parental or court consent.
Rachel Vogelstein, the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Alexandra Bro, a research associate there, wrote in Fortune column last month that more needs to be done to end child marriages domestically and globally.
"To be sure, this is not an immigration problem, but rather a result of insufficient child protection under U.S. domestic marriage law," they wrote. "... Visa petitioners need not even prove parental or judicial consent, as long as they can provide evidence of having met in-person within the last two years. As in the global context, the practice of child marriage in the U.S. reflects a disparity in power between the sexes."