Can You Really Buy True Love?

Family/Kids, Relationships

If international dating sites are any indication, American men are insanely popular. Are they really the most eligible people on the planet? Or are Americans in high demand as marriage partners on matchmaking websites all over the world because marrying a U.S. citizen is the quickest  path toward becoming an legal resident of the United States?

Conversely, are these men all that they seem? How would a young Ukrainian or Malaysian woman know if the man she’d corresponded with was representing himself truthfully?

Go West

In the 19th century, men who headed west to find their fortune found few women on the frontier, and would place ads in newspapers seeking a bride. Women from more populated areas such as the East Coast would write back, often those from poorer social classes with few marital prospects at home. They may have been seeking financial security, escape from life as a servant or factory worker, or adventure in the Wild West.

The advent of the Internet caused a reversal of the historical trend. Now, women willing to advertise on the internet for a husband are typically from poorer areas of the world, seeking marriage and maybe a path to citizenship in a more prosperous Western country. Or they may be from areas with a “man shortage.” Russia, for example, has a sex ratio of about four men for every five women–forcing some women seeking marriage to look elsewhere for mates.

Email-order Brides

Type “mail-order brides” into a search engine and the first hits are advertisements. “Asian women are waiting” says one; “Thousands of Latin beauties” is another tagline. These are matchmaking sites specifically set up for Western men to contact women, mostly from Eastern European and Asian countries.

At least two types of  international matchmaking agencies exist. The first sells clients’ contact information to men  and encourages couples to correspond prior to meeting. The second type offers group tours for men who want to travel around a foreign country and meet up to a hundred women at organized social events.

Signing up with one of these agencies isn’t cheap. In addition to membership fees (which run anywhere from $20 to $40 a month) “romance tours” can cost upwards of $4,000. Many sites also charge six to eight bucks for translating each email exchanged–even more for phone and instant message translation. Some will even arrange the paperwork for fiancee or spousal visas, for yet another fee.

Stranger Danger

The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that offers services to immigrant women, estimates that the number of mail-order marriages in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2007, when up to 16,500 such marriages were performed. They say that foreign brides are particularly vulnerable and dependent on their new husbands since they are isolated from family and friends, and often unfamiliar with the language and customs of their new home.

There have been several notorious cases of foreign brides murdered by their new husbands. In 2000, a 20-year-old woman from Kyrgyzstan was strangled by her 40-year-old husband, who had a restraining order against him from his first wife, and was already seeking another match on an international dating site. Susana Blackwell, from the Philippines, was eight months pregnant when her husband shot her outside a Seattle courtroom on the final day of their divorce proceedings; her husband had claimed during the divorce that she had married him only to come to the U.S.

Coming to America

Due to cases such as these, and further incidences of women claiming physical and sexual abuse and sex trafficking, the U.S. passed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA). This requires background checks on U.S. citizens before they can communicate with anyone via a matchmaking service. Those who fail to comply cannot get a fiancee visa petition approved.

While some Americans worry that these women are seeking only a green card, most of these relationships do turn out to be legitimate, or at least well-intentioned. More than 20 years ago the U.S. Senate concluded marriage fraud was a “significant and growing problem,” but not much was done about it. The initial estimate was that one in three marriages was faked–it was later revised to eight percent.

Across the country, very few green card petitions related to marriage are denied; in 2009 only 506 of the 241,154 immigrant visa petitions filed by citizen spouses were rejected on the basis of fraud.