Natasha Spivack

(WOMENSENEWS)–This summer, members of Congress are expected to introduce legislation that would give a foreign woman the chance to look at a U.S. man’s criminal record before accepting a commercially brokered offer of marriage from him.

The proposed legislation would mandate disclosure of past restraining orders against the man and would require immigration services to inform the woman about domestic violence protections available to her. Washington State recently passed similar legislation.

The legislative push coincides with the case of Nataliya Fox, a so-called mail-order bride who sued Encounters International, a well-known marriage agency based in Bethesda, Md., that specializes in matching Russian and Ukrainian women with U.S. husbands. Fox sued Encounters International in the U.S. District Court of Maryland for failing to give her information about domestic violence and for fraudulently informing her that she would be deported if she left her abusive husband, James M. Fox Jr., an Encounters International client. No trial date has been set for the case filed in April 2002.

Natasha Spivack, founder and owner of Encounters International, denied the charges. "This is a major scam and she happened to push all the right buttons," Spivack said of Nataliya Fox, "If you look at her, she looks very honest, like all con-artists do." Spivack, who emigrated to the U.S. from Moscow, claims that Nataliya Fox manufactured evidence of abuse and lied on her immigration applications. Spivack started Encounters International in 1993 using a fax machine and regular mail services before shifting to Web-based services as the Internet became widely available.

"In July 2000, James Fox attacked me," Nataliya Fox wrote in her declaration to the court in June 2002. "The beating lasted approximately two hours." James Fox was arrested for Nataliya’s attempted murder in July 2000. In a recent telephone interview, he denied hitting Nataliya and said that his record had been expunged.

Randall Miller, a lawyer with Arnold and Porter, the prominent D.C. law firm that took Nataliya Fox’s case pro bono, said in a recent telephone interview that James Fox expunged his record by completing a batterer’s class. The Tahirih Justice Center, an immigrant women’s rights advocacy group based in Falls Church, Va., joined Arnold and Porter as co-counsel. Tahirih has been the leading force behind the upcoming congressional initiative that would regulate the industry.

"During the entire time of my association with Encounters International and Natasha Spivack, I was never told about my rights should I encounter domestic abuse," Nataliya Fox’s declaration states. "She said that if I ever left James I would likely be deported."

James Fox obtained a Haitian divorce decree from Nataliya in January 2001. In October of that year, he married Inna Fox, a woman he met through an Internet marriage agency that has since closed down, James Fox said. According to court records in her case, Nataliya Fox believes that her ex-husband is abusing his new wife. Encounters petitioned to find out the basis for Nataliya’s suspicion, but the judge ruled that the potential risk to the safety of the person who is the source of Nataliya’s information overrode the defense’s need to know.

Thousands of Women Applying to Become U.S. Wives

Some women who enter commercially arranged marriages hope for a prince. Others just want a ticket out of economic desperation. Whatever the reason, thousands of foreign women marry near-strangers from the U.S. each year.

While services and costs vary, it generally works like this: men purchase addresses and profiles of women from a broker and initiate correspondence with the women they like. As the relationship progresses, men can choose to pay the matchmaker to send the women flowers or gifts. This is followed by a visit (immigration law requires that U.S. citizens meet their immigrating fiancee at least once), for which the matchmaker may arrange hotels, transportation, and translators–all for a fee, of course.

Because the "mail-order bride" business is almost entirely unregulated, there are no reliable statistics about how many women enter the U.S. each year to begin marriages with men they hardly know.

Between 1998 and 2001, the number of foreign fiancees entering the United States nearly doubled, from 12,306 in 1998 to 23,634 in 2001. Although no agency tracks how many of those fiancees are coming as a result of brokered matches, an Immigration and Naturalization Service report to Congress in 1999 estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 brokered brides entered the United States in 1998.

Estimating the number of fiancees in brokered matches is something more akin to divination than hard statistics. The 1998 figures–themselves an estimate–indicate that one-third to one-half of all entering fiancees met their intended through a matchmaker. If the percentage holds true, then the number of mail-order brides that entered the U.S. in 2001 could range from approximately 8,000 to 12,000.

GABRIELA Network, a Filipina advocacy group with offices throughout the U.S., believes that the congressional figure is low. It claims that more than 5,000 Filipina brides depart for the United States every year. Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the former Soviet states all boast thriving online matchmaking industries. The 1999 Immigration report found that most brides entering the U.S. came from the Philippines or former Soviet states.

No Government Oversight Leaves Brides Vulnerable

The lack of governmental oversight of the industry, critics say, leaves foreign women vulnerable to violence and abuse. Brokered brides leave familiar support networks and rely on near-strangers for financial security and immigration status. Many do not know that they can leave an abusive mate without being deported. And, while the women undergo rigorous background checks, their future husbands do not.

A 1996 law passed by Congress required that matchmakers provide women with domestic violence information or face a $20,000 fine. Regulations have never been put in place to implement that law and it has not been enforced. Nataliya Fox is the first woman to seek redress under that law.

"The agencies have a financial incentive to ensure the satisfaction of their paying clients–the men–but there is no comparable incentive to safeguard the woman," said Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of Tahirih.

Internet marriage agencies thrived with the rapid expansion of Web-based commerce and communication. The 1999 report found that approximately 200 international marriage brokers were operating in the U.S. In a recent count, Tahirih found more than 400 Internet marriage agencies.

Larry Gucciardo, owner of the Angelika Russian Marriage Agency Network, one of the largest U.S. marriage agencies, saw his opportunity in the Internet after his own frustratingly slow international courtship via regular post, he said in a recent phone interview.

In addition to faster communication, the Internet eliminated the start-up costs involved in producing and mailing a printed catalog, and could feature a greater number of profiles than a bulky book. "We have almost 100 Web sites," Gucciardo said. "We have 155,000 clients and about 20,000 girls. We add about 100 to 200 new girls every week."

Another problem with the business, say critics, is that it fuels men and women with false expectations about the quality of the prospective marriage. "The problem is that the organizations that market these relationships, that market these women, market stereotypes, to both sides," said Leslye Orloff, an expert on battered immigrants with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C. "What they’re doing is setting up an atmosphere that is ripe, potentially, for abuse."

U.S. men looking for foreign wives can search for such a partner by her height, weight, age and country of origin. The Christian Singles Registry promises, "Virgin Brides from 60 Countries." Another site called eMates markets "Quality Women," while One True Love–an Angelika Network site–advises potential customers that Russian women, unlike their American counterparts, "are not spoiled or greedy."

Some foreign women, like Fox, are finding that their American dreamboats turn into nightmares after marriage. One Russian woman, Svetlana, used a pseudonym out of fear of reprisal from her ex-husband. Svetlana nervously recounted how her husband repeatedly raped, beat and choked her during their 10-month marriage. When she turned to the marriage broker for help, they told her: "’It’s just a different culture,’" Svetlana claimed.

"I didn’t know. Is this normal marriage? My father, he never shook the shoulders of my mom, or choked her, or hit my mother’s head against the wall," she said during an interview in the unmarked, secure offices of Tahirih.

Miller-Muro of Tahirih, which arranged the interview, added: "The barbarity of her torture is so severe that I think that as Americans we should be profoundly embarrassed that there’s an industry that facilitates this."

Tahirih is not the only agency reporting a recent up-tick in the number of abused brides. Lillian Bykhovsky said in a recent telephone interview from her shelter for battered immigrant women in Atlanta that the abuse of mail-order brides "is quite a trend." Bykhovsky had assisted two such brides just that week. Sophia Lutsky, a counselor in Seattle, said by phone that she was currently seeing more than 10 abused brides and that she had seen an increase in such cases over the last several years.

In Colorado, Valyeria Roussakova, who came to the United States as a result of a brokered marriage, recently spoke in a phone interview about her own experiences. She said her husband terrorized her and her 9-year-old son by a previous marriage so badly that her son had frequent nightmares. Roussakova said her husband abused her emotionally and threatened her with deportation. "He said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can always leave,’" Roussakova said.

After she left him, Roussakova said her husband withdrew her work permit and she lost her job. According to Roussakova, the marriage agency told her that they take no responsibility for the outcome of a marriage.

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the women you see on these sites come from very disadvantaged backgrounds," said Vivian Kutchon in a telephone interview, a victim’s advocate with the GABRIELA Network in the Philippines. "It’s just another level of control."

Recently, Encounters International held a social gathering in suburban Maryland for some its clients. Bill Lawson, an enthusiastic Encounters’ client, disagreed that women who agree to these arranged marriages are being exploited. "We’re not taking advantage of the women. We’re taking advantage of an opportunity." He described Russian women as "a little more old-fashioned, as far as values go. A little more like American women in the 1950s or the 1930s."

Encounters’ Web site says that the agency has facilitated almost 250 marriages, with only 25 divorces. Ken Meyers, an as-yet-unmarried client, hosted the recent social at his Germantown, Md., townhouse where Spivack’s success was evident. One client, married eight years, held his 6-year-old daughter on his knee. Another, Joe, smiles at his wife of just over three months. A young Marine and his wife, married three years, humorously recount hard times on a rural base.

In the next room, however, an elegant Russian woman who sat with her manicured hands clasped tightly in her lap did not appear so well-adjusted to her new life. In 2000, she married a man–her "soul mate," as the Encounters’ Web site described him, who had been an agency member for just two months.

"Potentially we could be a very good couple," she said, but her husband is isolated, moody, and frequently yells at her. He did not want her to learn to drive, hold a job or join a gym. On her birthday, he took out a pistol, one of his 17 guns, and put the barrel in his mouth and threatened to shoot himself. "He always carries a gun," she said. She did not want her name used for fear of angering her husband.

After the woman left the gathering, Spivack mocked the nervousness the woman had expressed to her about having possibly spoken too candidly with a reporter. "She says to me, ‘I am worried I have said something wrong,’" Spivack said. She imitated the woman, by wringing her hands and continuing to quote her. "’I am afraid because my husband he has so many guns’" Spivack broke into her wide-toothed smile. As she laughed, several of her clients laughed with her.

Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.



For more information:

Encounters International:

Gabriela Network–
Filipinas Not For Sale!
End the Export of Filipinas!:

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund–
Immigrant Women::

The court case documents are from Nataliya Mikhaylovna Fox v. Encounters International, et al. pending before the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Maryland.