Forced marriage victims coerced into hard-to-detect immigration fraud
One family’s saga shows how far a woman went for freedom and how far her father allegedly went to defend ‘honor’
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states that a marriage petition must be denied if there is evidence the marriage was entered into for the purpose of evading immigration laws.John Moore/Getty Images
This is part three of a four-part series. Click at right for the other parts.
It was supposed to be a family visit, a trip back to Pakistan to renew ties with the relatives she hadn’t seen since she was a child and her family immigrated to the United States. It was 2010, and Amina Ajmal was 19, a young woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who willingly boarded an international flight that would change her life.
Nearly four years later, Ajmal is in hiding, protected by U.S. officials. Her father, Mohammad Ajmal Choudhry, is in custody, accused both of immigration fraud by forcing Ajmal into a marriage with a Pakistani man and of ordering the murders of two members of the family who helped her escape what she described as three years of captivity, with her own kin holding her prisoner.
It's a gripping family saga outlined in court documents and news accounts. It’s also a textbook case of how forced marriage plays into some cases of immigration fraud.
When Ajmal returned to U.S. soil, she contacted the U.S. Benefit Fraud Task Force, a section of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.
ICE refers to marriage fraud as a subcategory of immigration fraud. According to the ICE website, marriage fraud occurs when “a U.S. citizen is paid or asked to perform a favor, to marry a foreign national” or enters a “‘mail-order’ marriage where either the U.S. citizen or alien knows it is a fraud.”
Ajmal’s forced marriage case fit both those definitions, but there was more to it than that.
“I will kill them. I will kill one of theirs,” Choudhry said to his daughter over the phone, according to a transcript of a recorded call in the court document. He was referring to the family of Shujat Abbas, the relative who helped Ajmal escape. Not long after, the father and sister of Abbas were killed in Pakistan.
In February 2013, the United States government put Choudhry into federal detention in Brooklyn, charged with threats, conspiracy to murder and immigration fraud. He is being held while court proceedings continue.
For Sujata Warrier, director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, immigration fraud and forced marriage are closely linked. Often, she said, cases involve young girls who were unaware they were traveling to get married, as in Ajmal’s case.
“When young women reach 16 and older, normally here they would be dating,” said Warrier, who mostly works with members of the West Asian and Asian/Pacific Islander communities in New York. “So it is under those circumstances that they may be taken forcibly sometimes. Maybe on the pretext of going on summer vacation, and then they are married off to men in their home countries.”
When they return, Warrier said, they are with their new, unwanted husbands. She said that most victims in New York are U.S. citizens and can therefore sponsor a spouse to come back.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) states that a marriage petition must be denied if there is evidence that the marriage was entered for the purpose of evading immigration laws.
According to Warrier, when forced-marriage victims return, they sometimes are caught committing marriage fraud when their new husbands compel them to re-enter the U.S. and pretend that the marriage is consensual.
“Often in those situations, their passports get confiscated when they go to the consulate to try to come back,” she said.
Options for help
Bandita Sharma, a lawyer for the New York City–based Chhetry & Associates, said the issue of forced marriage is very prevalent in the South Asian community in New York City.
Sharma specializes in the U-1 nonimmigrant visa, which gives temporary legal status in the U.S. to a victim of abuse, regardless of his or her abuser’s legal status. According to the USCIS, 2014 will mark the fifth straight year that the U.S. issues 10,000 U visas, the statutory maximum. They began issuing this type of visa in 2008. While the U visa is not specifically for victims of forced marriage, Sharma said it is a viable remedy for those who are trying to escape.
Katie Tichacek, a spokeswoman for the USCIS, said that victims of forced marriage are finding help through programs like the U visa and through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which lets women “petition for visas another way.”
Bandita Sharma, an immigration attorney, wants more information to be available to victims of forced marriages on where they can go for help.
“We are happy that we hit the maximum,” she said. “For a while, people didn’t know it existed and weren’t taking advantage of it. But this and VAWA are really giving the abused immigrants options.”
For Sharma, though, options aren’t enough.
“Whenever someone is married abroad and is coming to the U.S. with their new husband, I think they should get information on who they can call and where they can go if they are forced or if the relationship turns violent,” Sharma said. “Just even a pamphlet.”
Bryan Lonegan, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said that marriage is an easy way to get someone into the United States and avoiding immigration laws.
He said that many forced marriages exist “as a way to get more family members” into the United States and that since arranged marriages are legal and typical for some cultures, detecting coercion can be difficult for authorities.
“I have seen many cases of U.S. citizens returning to the homeland,” Lonegan said. “These are young American women being compelled to marry in an arranged way that seems legitimate.”
According to Lonegan, who works on “two or three” cases of this nature a year, fraudulent, forced marriages are difficult to detect because of the outward appearance of legitimacy.
“As long as they are living together, sharing assets, no one is going to go in and scratch the surface,” he said. “No one is going to think to ask, ‘Did they really want to get married?’”