BUFFALO, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--International marriage brokers leave little doubt about what they're selling.
"Her life is centered around her family, her husband and children (similar to American women from generations past). These women would rather compliment her man than compete with him," reads the ad on the Web site of TLC Worldwide, a Houston marriage broker. Adorned with photos of bikini-clad women, another entry promises that "Single Latin women are renowned for their warmth, friendliness and feminine nature. They are not uncomfortable in the presence of a 'strong man'."
For decades foreign mail-order brides have been marketed as quiet, submissive and easily controlled.
Such women have also frequently fallen prey to serial abusers who relied on an unregulated industry to secure a continuous supply of women. While there are no firm figures on how many women in brokered marriages wind up abused, a 2003 survey of 175 legal service providers by the Tahirih Justice Center indicated that more than 50 percent were serving or had served women who met their spouses through a broker.
Industry watchers estimate between 9,500 and 14,000 American men met their spouses through a marriage broker service in 2004, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, based in Falls Church, Va.
"This industry predominantly places women at a disadvantage where the man is the paying client and the woman advertised as a product, a commodity," says Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center. This creates a "presumption of power and a potentially very dangerous recipe for abuse."
But on March 6, women who agree to such brokered marriages will gain new rights and protections when a federal law comes into effect that tightens regulation and provides foreign women tools to protect themselves against abuse.
"With this law the industry will no longer be able to cater to serial offenders bringing women to the States and abusing them," Miller-Muro says.
Sailed Through Congress
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 sailed through Congress with unanimous support as part of the final version of the Violence Against Women Act this past December and was signed into law by President Bush on Jan. 5.
As of March 6, the government will be required to ask U.S. men seeking visas for a prospective bride to disclose any criminal convictions related to domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse. Immigration officials will be required to deny anyone seeking within a two-year period to sponsor a second fiancee or stop any petitions for a third fiancee visa.
Marriage brokers, for their part, are required to conduct searches of state and federal sexual predator databases on all their male clients and provide any findings along with marriage history, information on children under 18 and criminal records to prospective brides before making an introduction. They are also required to obtain written consent from a woman before providing her contact information to any man.
In cases where a marriage broker is found to have violated the law, civil and criminal penalties include a $25,000 fine and a five-year prison term maximum per violation.
"This will make the situation better as there had not been any regulation of the industry before and the threat of penalties wasn't very real," says Miller-Muro.
"The new law places a burden on the industry to police itself and, by the nature of the subject matter, taints the product companies are selling," says Lisa Schwamkrug, a Dallas prosecutor who has represented several Russian mail-order brides. "These companies are marketing submissive women who will be at their husbands' beck and call, not rights-savvy women who will assert themselves."
Industry Reacts Angrily
Industry participants have reacted angrily to the law.
"American men don't need background checks to marry American women, so the law is discriminatory," says Natasha Spivack, owner of Encounters International, Rockville, Md., the first U.S.-based broker agency to be sued by a former client.
The act calls upon the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to prepare a pamphlet on the marriage-based immigration process, domestic violence and services, and legal rights of immigrants to be printed in Russian, Ukrainian and Filipino, the languages spoken in the countries that export the highest numbers of foreign brides. Marriage brokers will be required to supply the pamphlet to prospective brides.
The law also requires Homeland Security to create and maintain a database including information about any man who has applied for more than two fiancee or spouse visas. Consular officers at U.S. embassies abroad will be required to ask visa applicants if their marriage was arranged through a broker and ensure the women have received information on their rights.
"Foreign women should have information on their rights, but the government has gone draconian and now every man is branded a criminal or sexual predator," says John Adams, co-founder of A Foreign Affair, a Phoenix-based company that operates "romance tours" to South America and Eastern Europe.
During such tours, a dozen or so American men typically travel to the home country of prospective brides for a few days to a week. They often participate in social events where women outnumber men, sometimes by as much as 20 to 1, allowing the men to prospect for wives.
Previously, the only legislative requirement was a 1996 stipulation that marriage brokers provide immigration and rights information to women in their native language. Fear that the lack of official oversight was allowing brokers to shirk the requirements was a driving force behind the campaign for the new law by women's rights advocates.
Several high-profile cases of abuse spurred lawmakers to provide more legal protection for brokered brides.
Timothy Blackwell shot and killed his 8-month pregnant Filipino wife Susana and two friends of hers in March 1995 as she was leaving a Washington state courthouse. Susana Blackwell was seeking a divorce at the time.
Five years later, near Seattle, 20-year-old Anastasia Solovieva King from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan was strangled to death. Her husband Indle King Jr. had assaulted his previous mail-order bride and was in the application process of another fiancee visa petition at the time of Anastasia's death.
Both men are currently serving prison sentences.
In December 2004 a jury in Baltimore awarded $433,500 to Nataliya Derkach, who was beaten by her husband James Fox while breastfeeding their child. Derkach's suit targeted international marriage broker Natasha Spivack for assuring Derkach her husband had been screened and for failing to inform her of her rights. Fox settled for $115,000 and completed an anger management course that expunged criminal assault charges from his record.
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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Willingness of "Mail Order Bride" Companies to Provide Services to Violent Men