USCIS Information on Forced Marriages

 

Introduction

In order for a marriage to be valid under the immigration laws, it must be, among other things, entered into freely by both parties. Forced marriages are not considered valid under the immigration laws. Furthermore, perpetrators of a forced marriage may be subject to criminal penalties as well as immigration sanctions in the event that they are not U.S. citizens. Persons of either sex and any age can be victims of forced marriages. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) takes special care to look for forced marriage indicators where one or both parties to a spousal petition are minors.

In this article, we will examine public information from the USCIS and the U.S. Department of State (DOS) on forced marriages. To learn about forced marriage indicators in the context of spousal petitions involving minors, please see our full article on that issue [see article].

USCIS Website on Forced Marriages

The USCIS website provides information for the general public about forced marriages [PDF version]. Although the information on the USCIS website comes with the provision that it “does not provide legal definitions or advice,” the webpage is cited to in the AFM for USCIS officers [PDF version].

Definition of Forced Marriage

The USCIS webpage defines a “forced marriage” as “a marriage that takes place without the consent of one or both people in the marriage.” “Consent” means that the party “[has] given [his or her] full, free, and informed agreement to marry [his or her] intended spouse and to the timing of the marriage.” A forced marriage may occur when family members of the victim or others “use physical or emotional abuse, threats, or deception to force [the victim] to marry without [his or her] consent.”

Distinguishing Forced Marriage from Arranged Marriage

The USCIS webpage emphasizes the distinction between a “forced marriage” and an “arranged marriage.” It explains that “[i]n an arranged marriage, families may play a role in choosing the marriage partner, but both individuals are free to choose whether or not to marry and when to get married.” A forced marriage occurs when one or both of the parties to the marriage are denied the choice of “whether, when, and whom to marry.” Thus, while both forced marriages and arranged marriages involve family or others playing a role in choosing the marriage partner(s), arranged marriages are distinguishable from forced marriages in that the parties to the arranged marriage retain the ultimate choice of whether to get married and when to go through with the marriage.

Indicators of Forced Marriage

The USCIS website provides a general non-exhaustive list of signs that may accompany a forced marriage (paraphrased):

The individual feels that he or she does not or did not have a choice regarding whom to marry and when to marry;
The individual is experiencing or is being threatened with abandonment, isolation, or physical or emotional abuse if he or she does not marry or attempts to leave a marriage which he or she did not consent to;
The individual is being closely monitored in an effort to prevent him or her from talking to others about the pressure he or she is facing;
The individual feels that he or she cannot refuse to marry or leave a marriage that he or she did not consent to because it would bring shame or harm to him or her or to his or her family;
The individual believes that he or she or people he or she cares about would be hurt or even killed if he or she refuses to marry or attempts to leave a marriage that he or she did not consent to; and/or
The individual has had his or her travel documents, identification, communication devices, or money taken away from him or her and will not get them back unless he or she agrees to marry or remain in a marriage which he or she did not consent to.

Government View of Forced Marriages

The USCIS website makes clear that it is the view of the United States government that forced marriages are “a serious human rights abuse.” In cases where the victim is a child, the government considers it to also be “a form of child abuse.” Furthermore, “[i]n some U.S. states, forced marriage is a crime, and in all U.S. states, people who force someone to marry may be charged with violating state laws…” Aliens who force others to marry may also be punished under the immigration laws. The website makes clear, however, that the victims of forced marriages “are not at fault and … have not violated any U.S. laws by entering into the marriage.”

Options Available for Victims of Forced Marriage

Individuals in the United States who need help preventing a forced marriage or who are looking for options and support for themselves or others facing a forced marriage may contact the following sources for support (chart from USCIS website):

Your situation Who to contact
If you are in immediate danger Call 911 to receive emergency help from your local police.
If you need confidential help at any time of day or night

These hotlines are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888

If a U.S. citizen abroad is being forced into a marriage, he or she should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) also advises U.S. citizens in this circumstance that they may call the Overseas Citizens Services Offices in Washington D.C. at 1-888-407-4747 (or, if outside the United States and Canada, may call 202-501-4444) for more information [PDF version]. A U.S. citizen in this circumstance with access to the internet may also consult the “Special Circumstances” section of the country information page for the country he or she is present in on the DOS website for further information and possible resources in his or her country.

The USCIS website advises U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are being forced to sponsor his or her spouse or fiancée for an immigration benefit that they may withdraw the spousal petition at any time before a decision is rendered by USCIS on the petition or, if the petition has been approved, before the beneficiary is admitted or granted adjustment of status. The USCIS advises that the withdrawal of the petition “may trigger certain automatic notifications that USCIS mails to the address on file.” This means that the beneficiary of the petition may receive notice of the withdrawal of the petition. For this reason, the USCIS advises petitioners who are being forced to sponsor their spouse or fiancée to consider “talk[ing] with an organization or immigration lawyer or accredited representative familiar with forced marriage situations to discuss [their] options and plan for [their] safety.” The USCIS website includes external links to other government resources that may assist petitioners and beneficiaries who are victims of forced marriages.

Possible Immigration Options for Victims

There is no specific immigration program for an alien in the United States who is the victim of a forced marriage. However, depending on the facts of the particular case, an alien may be eligible for certain forms of relief or protection such as a U visa, a T visa, or protection under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Whether these or other forms of relief may be available will require a case-specific assessment. Victims of abuse and serious crimes such as forced marriages should seek legal counsel and/or assistance from organizations with these types of abuse to learn about their options for protection, immigration and otherwise.

Conclusion

Law enforcement and immigration authorities take cases of forced marriage seriously. Where a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident is being forced to petition for a spouse or fiancée, he or she should consult with an experienced family immigration attorney or qualified organization for guidance on how to withdraw the petition without putting him or herself in danger. Alien victims of forced marriages should seek counsel immediately for guidance on how to first ensure their safety and second evaluate what forms of relief or protection may be available. As the USCIS website made clear, an individual who was forced to enter into a marriage is considered to be the victim, and is not subject to penalties based on that victimization.

To learn more about immigration options available for certain crime victims, please see our growing section on Victims of Violence Immigration [see category].