Yesterday, a Republican-drafted revision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed on the House floor by a mostly partisan vote. This was an unusual occurrence: Normally, reauthorization of the bill, which funds protection and services for victim of domestic violence, enjoys bipartisan support and passes easily. That’s what happened last month in the Senate, which reauthorized the bill in its present form. But House Republicans objected to a few provisions of VAWA, particularly one that allows abused immigrant women to self-petition for protected immigration status. If the House version of the bill is signed, the impact will be most closely felt by immigrant victims of domestic violence, including a group often overlooked in immigration discussions: mail-order brides.
The term mail-order bride often conjures up outdated images of prairie skirts and wagon trains, but the modern mail-order bride industry is thriving. It is estimated that 200 mail-order bride companies arrange between 2,000 and 5,000 marriages in the U.S. each year. The majority of these women come from the Philippines, the former Soviet Union or Latin America. They typically come from impoverished countries and they are frequently young and often uneducated. (The majority of them are also beautiful.) Conversely, the men they marry are typically older, educated, and successful. Most have been unlucky in love and hope a foreign wife is the solution. Unfortunately, when these women fail to meet their new husband’s expectations, many of these relationships turn violent.
Research has repeatedly found that foreign women face a particularly high risk of abuse. In one of the most well known instances, a 26-year-old mail-order bride from Kyrgyzstan named Anastasia King was strangled to death by her husband after suffering years of sexual and physical abuse. King’s death was tragic, but one of the most disturbing aspects of the case was that she was not the first mail-order bride her husband had victimized. Cases like King’s led Congress to revise VAWA in 2005 so as to increase the protections for mail-order brides. Marriage brokers are now required to collect and disclose information regarding their clients’ criminal and marital history and they are obligated to inform prospective brides of their right to leave abusive spouses without being deported.
All previous revisions of VAWA have resulted in greater protections for abused immigrant women, but the House version of VAWA would unnecessarily reverse this trend. According to the Republicans, allowing abused women to self-petition for permanent residency risks fraud: It supposedly encourages women to falsely claim abuse in order to fast track their permanent resident status. They argue that their revisions would prevent such fraud by facilitating in-person interviews with the alleged victims and by allowing the alleged abuser to learn of, and refute, the abuse allegations.
But both of these changes pose great dangers for abused women. Instead of having the victim’s allegations considered by an immigration official specializing in domestic violence, she will be forced to contact her nearest immigration official, who may have no experience in detecting abuse. The second change is even more problematic. By eliminating the confidentiality provision, this revision exposes battered women to an increased likelihood of retaliation and further abuse. In fact, VAWA as it currently exists—and as reauthorized by the Senate—already represents a compromise, and a far more realistic one, between risk of fraud and protection from abuse. While the risk of fraud may be real, it is outweighed by the much greater risk of abuse.
Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Immigration Marriage Fraud Act (IMFA) to specifically address the possibility of marriage fraud. Under IMFA, a couple was required to petition for the foreign spouse’s residency together. A wife could not petition for permanent residency without the help of her husband; if the couple failed to file jointly, the wife was immediately deportable. The joint petition requirement of the IMFA addressed concerns of fraud, but made no provision for the possibility that a wife might be endangered by being so dependent on her husband. Fortunately, Congress soon recognized that the possibility of fraud did not justify risking the safety of foreign-born wives, and when VAWA was enacted in 1994, it contained a provision permitting abused spouses to petition on their own for permanent resident status and do so confidentially.
A disturbing aspect of the current reauthorization debate highlights how necessary increased protection for mail-order brides is. One of the top officials of the group spearheading the GOP push for these revisions—Save, which stands for Stop Abusive and Violent Environments—is the founder of an international mail-order bride company called Encounters International. A few years ago, a former client sued Encounters International for matching her with an abusive husband and falsely informing her that leaving him would result in her deportation. Firms like Encounters International, which boasts of a 100 percent success rate, 299 marriages, and 128 babies, have a strong incentive for keeping women in their marriages regardless of the circumstances, and thus it is not surprising that they would support these revisions.
But Congress’s greatest priority should be protecting the victims of domestic abuse, whether they are citizens or not. At best, the House version of VAWA will increase protections for male victims of marriage fraud at the expense of female victims of abuse. At worst, this revision will simply lead to more abuse.
Marcia Zug is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina and is currently writing a book on the legal history of mail-order marriages. She is also a former TNR reporter-researcher.