The Vulnerable Alien Wife: Beyond Mail-Order Brides
"You're married!" Richard screamed on the end of the line. "You're married to me! I need to have a female in my life."
It was a typical fight between my ex-husband and me, some months before the end of our marriage.
"I don't know where you are right now," he continued, bringing the decibels down a notch. "I can't live like that!"
"I'm at a networking event," I responded coolly.
"Make a choice, then, your career or your marriage. I can't have you running around!"
"I am not your little bird!" I screamed, aggravated by his comment. "A person can't live in a cage!"
"I will have you with me, I don't care at what cost!" he responded. "Come home now or I'm filling out the divorce paperwork."
I lit another cigarette on the end of the line and said nothing.
"You are choosing to divorce me?"
"No, you are choosing to divorce me."
"If you're not mature or responsible enough to be my wife and be with me -- I'm going to let you go," Richard said, like he was laying me off. "You can work on our life together or -- "
"Our life? No. Your life. I can work on being a part of your life, do it your way or hit the road."
"Come home," he said. "Come home or I'll change your situation."
Richard said nothing.
"You mean 'come home or I'll have the NSA personally escort you out of the country.' It's what you mean, isn't it?"
"If that's what you choose, that's what will happen. I love you. I have to be with you."
"Love is not this. Don't you dare tarnish love with this."
The problem with his threat was two-fold: one, I didn’t want to live in the United States. Our plan -- which my ex-husband changed without my opinion after we were married -- had been to move back to my home country of Peru after we were married. But I was flexible and in love, so I decided to stay. I'd spent much of my life in the U.S., and it didn't seem like a great sacrifice to spend a few more years here. That was the first thing: despite the fact that he treated me like he'd done me an incredible favor by enabling me to come here and thus escape my desperate existence with a strong support system, a full household staff and a booming economy in what he called a "third-world" country (it's actually a second-world country), he was the only reason I was here.
The second problem was more detrimental to him: I knew my rights. I knew the law. In fact, I knew more about both than he did. I knew that no matter how many times he said he was just joking, holding a knife to someone's throat, saying you're going to shoot them, or coercing them with threats about their immigration status are very serious things, and that, should I choose to stay, I could petition to do so under a waiver made available to foreign women for just this reason.
Even so, during this period, I thought several times about people who are coerced to stay in horrible, abusive relationships because they don't understand their rights and so dread going back to their home countries that they simply bow their heads and take it. No one should live like that. Unfortunately, the system we have in place to assist foreigners who come to this country in the name of love is not one many of these foreigners know about. We have to fill out a million forms and file a thousand petitions, but rarely are we given the required information about what our rights are or what legal recourse we have should things go terribly wrong -- and certainly never are we given a handbook about what is legally acceptable behavior in a marriage.
THE VULNERABLE LIMBO TO HAPPILY EVER AFTER
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by AnastasiaDate.com, a dating service seeking to "bring the world together" by enabling men the world over to scan the profiles of thousands of Russian and Ukranian women to find the beautiful, young love of their lives. Lawrence Cervantes, content director of AnastasiaDate, was in Los Angeles with two spokeswomen, users who had been active on the site for several years and were available to show me the ropes.
I accepted the invitation, though my thoughts about marriage brokers survive in a bitterly confused, war-torn space in my mind. Not only am I a foreigner once married to an American who wasn't afraid to remind me that he could ship me back any time if I didn't behave, I'd also grown up in the Mariana Islands at the height of its incarnation as Tom DeLay's "petri dish" of capitalism, which made me intimately familiar with the socioeconomic reality of indentured aliens in a country where marriage quickly becomes a means to escape a difficult reality, as well as the abuses engendered by such vulnerable situations.
Much is expected of people coming into the United States of America -- from a clean criminal record to a clean bill of health -- but an understanding of your rights and legal recourse in this new country is not one of them and that makes me very nervous, especially in cases where the brides or grooms don't know enough English to hold even a simple conversation.
Marriage, whether we want to accept it or not, is much more complicated than two people being in love, or two people who have come together with a desire to satisfy different needs (say, the need for resources and financial stability, or the need for a partner that is youthful and beautiful). Marriage is a legal situation with legal and financial implications. In this case, marriage is about one person coming to a foreign country where, for at least two years, he or she is going to be in an extremely vulnerable limbo.
THE ROAD OF TRIALS FROM FOREIGNER TO PERMANENT RESIDENT
There are several visa options available to foreigners who wish to come to the United States to marry, but most often, petitioners seek a K-1 visa, also known as a fiancée or fiancé visa. This visa requires the visiting foreigner to marry within 90 days of arriving in the U.S., inadvertently creating a sort of "test drive" period for the relationship, during which, the foreigner -- who is not permitted to work during this time -- is very vulnerable, as they are dependent on their U.S. citizen host financially as well as in terms of their future.
This is compounded in the cases where foreigners leave their employments to follow their hearts without much of a financial cushion. The U.S. citizen may decide before the 90 days are up that things aren’t working, break it off, say good bye and get back to their lives. A foreigner has to go home and start from scratch – for nothing.
Once married, a foreigner can apply for adjustment of status to obtain a green card. During this period, he or she cannot leave the country without applying for travel documents through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), meaning their ability to go home for a time is largely obstructed. Neither can a foreigner work until they file for Employment Authorization Documents (form I-765), which can take six months to issue. If they should lack a financial cushion, their every need invariably becomes a burden on their American spouse -- and as we know, financial strain can cause friction in any relationship.
Once the adjustment goes through, the foreigner becomes a legal permanent resident and receives a green card. If the marriage is less than two years old -- as it tends to be in most cases -- a two-year condition is put on the green card. Upon the completion of the two-year period, the green card expires and the foreigner ceases to be a legal permanent resident and becomes subject to deportation unless he or she files a petition to remove conditions on residence (form I-751) 90 days before this expiration date. Once the request to remove conditions is approved, the foreigner must present evidence to the USCIS that the marriage still exists, that it was made in good faith and not simply to acquire a green card.
If approved, then and only then does the foreigner receive a green card valid for ten years, after which, assuming they live lawfully, a foreigner may renew the green card for an indefinite period, whether or not they are still married, or begin preparing for naturalization (which if they remain married may be an option in as little as two years, and if not, in five years).
The process is not a simple one. The forms are complex and the procurement of all supporting documentation is daunting. But even that is nowhere as intimidating as the number of places along the way where foreigners are left in recklessly vulnerable situations.
THE MARRIAGE BROKERAGE FIRMS AND THE LAW
Because of the amount of time that it takes to become legally settled in the country, marriages between foreigners and American citizens run high risk of power imbalances right from the get-go. No one is more aware of this than Lawrence Cervantes, who works at the marriage brokerage firm, AnastasiaDate.com.
"But it's like any dating site," he argues, as we sip coffee leisurely on the courtyard of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, flanked by Zoya and Inga, two long-time users of the site.
"Like any dating site, you don't know if the other person is always being honest with you," Cervantes says. "Just like when you meet someone at a bar. You don't know this person. You need to get to know them and learn if they are trustworthy before you make a commitment with them. You control that."
The site is a tool, he explains. It's not a "satisfaction guaranteed" deal where women are duped or coerced into returning to a man’s country of residence to be done with as he wishes. AnastasiaDate gets a share of complaints from clients, he confesses, because clients will interact with women on their sites and come to Russia or the Ukraine only to find the girls changed their minds and don't want to see them.
"We don't guarantee anything," Cervantes tells me. "Sometimes a girl wants to see you, sometimes she changes her mind. That's life."
As Zoya, 28, and Inga, 35, begin to relate their own stories of men they’ve met through AnastasiaDate over the years, I see that -- at least this site -- is more like your average dating site with occasional club meet and greets than it is a vacation destination for predators. Essentially, the only difference between AnastasiaDate and OKCupid, Match.com or eHarmony is that AnastasiaDate actively encourages people to transcend geography.
But this minor difference has proved to be a big one because of the lengthy process that foreigners face when coming to the country. Two major cases involving women who met men through marriage brokerage firms made this difference so clear, an act was passed to protect them. Their names were Susana Blackwell and Anastasia King.
Susana was 21 years old. She was attractive, educated and ready to leave her home in the Philippines to pursue her dreams in a country of opportunity. She met a Seattle-based computer technician named Timothy C. Blackwell through a now-defunct catalog called Asian Encounters. The two corresponded for over a year before Blackwell went to visit her in her hometown of Cataingan in 1993. They were married three days later in the Philippines.
From the beginning, the marriage was nothing like either party had expected. During divorce proceedings, Susana testified that her husband tried to choke her on the day after the wedding. Once in the U.S., the couple lived together for just a little more than two weeks before the violence forced Susana to seek help of two Filipino girlfriends in the U.S., who allowed her to stay with them.
Facing a potentially costly divorce and having learned that his wife was eight months pregnant with someone else's child, Blackwell snapped and shot her and her two girlfriends at point-blank range at a divorce proceeding in 1995.
Facing three counts of murder and one of manslaughter for the unborn child, Blackwell testified that he felt duped by his wife. She had cost him $17,000 but far from being the ideal wife, she was disinterested and inattentive, he told jurors, certain that the entire thing had been a con devised by her to attain citizenship.
Three years later, a man named Indle G. King married Anastasia, an educated, attractive 20-year-old from Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union. They were married two and a half years and had just filed for divorce before King enlisted the help of one of the tenants in their home to strangle her while King pinned her down using his 270-pound body.
The two buried Anastasia in a shallow grave under a mattress at a dump in the Tulalip Indian Reservation. This had been King’s second marriage to a mail-order bride. The first had ended in divorce shortly after she attained citizenship.
During the investigation into Anastasia’s murder, detectives recovered her diaries, where Anastasia related the threats and abuse she'd received at the hands of her husband, including his warning that he would kill her if she ever tried to leave him. She further alleged he'd tried to have his previous wife and her family killed, after she took half his assets during their divorce. She admitted in these diaries to having lovers while she was with King.
Three months before King had filed to divorce Anastasia, and two before her disappearance and the gruesome discovery at the reservation, King wrote immigration officials saying his wife had lured him into a "sham marriage for a green card."
Later, King admitted that he had included several forged letters in Anastasia's immigration application, to allow himself the power to contact authorities and blow the whistle, should she threaten to leave him. Two months before he filed for divorce, King stole her travel documents and attempted to leave Anastasia in Kyrgyzstan so she'd be unable to contest a divorce. Desperate not to lose more money to an ex-wife, he decided murder was the only option.
Authorities discovered that King was already looking for another mail-order bride just weeks before Anastasia's murder, promising her that he would be free within a month's time.
These two cases out of Washington were the propelling force behind the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA).
THE INTERNATIONAL MARRIAGE BROKER REGULATION ACT
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 is the last in a series of regulations to protect immigrant spouses. Federal safeguards date back as far as 1990. These and more were compiled in a comprehensive provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, which granted funding to assist in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, as well as imposed mandatory restitution to those convicted.
Two years later, the first regulation for international marriage brokers came about in the form of 8 U.S.C. §1375:
Many mail-order brides come to the United States unaware or ignorant of United States immigration law. Mail-order brides who are battered often think that if they flee an abusive marriage, they will be deported. Often the citizen spouse threatens to have them deported if they report the abuse.
To rectify this, regulation specified that each international matchmaking organization doing business in the U.S. has to inform foreigners about immigration and naturalization procedures and other relevant aspects of the law, including the battered spouse waiver available to foreigners who have attained permanent resident status.
In 1999, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) recommended that male clients of marriage brokers be screened before they were allowed to interact with women who made themselves available through brokers, and that women be informed of their rights and the resources available to them, should they encounter abuse or other problems.
Finally, in 2003, IMBRA was introduced to Congress. It finally passed in 2005 and was made into law by George W. Bush in 2006.
Under IMBRA, a marriage broker must collect information about clients including marital, criminal and sex offender records, and provide this information to potential brides in her native language, along with a document informing her of her rights and resources while in the United States.
Petitioners looking for K visas must disclose convictions for violent crimes, including those for domestic violence, assault and battery, elder abuse, child abuse or neglect, and stalking. If they have been convicted three or more times for offenses involving alcohol or controlled substances, these must be declared as well. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must provide the Department of State (DOS) the petition for the visa along with background criminal information, as well as protection orders. The Department of State, in turn, must provide these to the spouse.
A U.S. consular officer conducting the K visa interview with a foreigner may ask if the woman being petitioned used a marriage broker, and if so, whether the marriage broker provided her with disclosures and information about her rights and the resources available to her in the U.S.
IMBRA also places a limit of two on how many K visa petitions may be filed by any one citizen, with no less than two years between the last approved petition and the current one. A waiver of this limit is available through the DHS; however, no waiver is granted to a U.S. petitioner who has a record of violent criminal offenses.
In short, IMBRA is a step in the right direction, though unfortunately, there is no background check other than the national sex offender data base and brokers usually rely on testimony from clients about their criminal history, which could easily be false.
The marriage brokerage industry for their part, does not support the legislation, feeling unfairly singled out for a matter that does not correspond to them so much as it does U.S. immigration services. They tried to appeal IMBRA in 2007. The statute was upheld.
Inga and Zoya are more relaxed as the hours pass. After lunch, we take a stroll from the Hammer to a Peet's in Westwood Village. In discussing the differences between American and Russian men, they touch on legal issues surrounding marriage and remark on how much better the United States deals with wives and brides. Their understanding of the law and their rights in both countries is remarkable and I wonder how much of it has to do with IMBRA.
When I mention it to Cervantes, he shakes his head. He makes it clear that he doesn't think the responsibility of protecting brides should fall on marriage brokers. eHarmony doesn't have to screen people, and abuse is not something that only occurs in marriages between Americans and foreigners. Neither do marriages between citizens and foreigners solely occur through marriage brokers, or begin with a K visa. I think about my own marriage, which happened in 2007, and try to remember how much information about my rights and resources was given to me as a foreigner.
I don't remember ever seeing anything on the topic so, later, when I return to my apartment, I pull out the three-inch binder with all my immigration paperwork. I have kept every single form and brochure sent to me by the USCIS and DHS and every entity in-between, as well as copies of all the forms that were submitted that were not to be returned.
I don't find a single item that describes my rights or resources available to me. Granted, I was never petitioned under a K-1 visa. I was already in the United States under another visa at the time I was married. But are the risks any less for women who are married under visas other than K visas? Certainly not. And yet, no information was made available to me.
Everything I know, I learned through my own research, which I compiled on the computers of friends using their own connections, to avoid problems in my disintegrating marriage. How many women don't have this option? I managed to forge a network of friends in Los Angeles despite my seclusion thanks to Twitter, and I was able to use their resources to find the information I needed -- available only in heavy, legal English, which I am privileged to understand. Many more are not so privileged.
Despite the legislative advancement made with these protections and laws, we still have a long way to go to offer safe passage to foreigners coming into this country through marriage. Because, in the end, I agree with Cervantes. Though background checks are a good idea, these are limited and rely too much on individuals' honesty. Ultimately, this responsibility should not fall on marriage brokers -- or at least not on them alone. It should fall largely on the country the foreigner is entering, regardless of what kind of visa they hold at the time that they apply to be married.
What do you think? Did you come to the U.S. through marriage? Did you receive any information about the law, your rights and resources? Tell me your story, I want to know.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.