Since the nineteenth century, marriage brokers have been hooking up single American men with women. It’s legal, but is it safe? And how often is the process abusive toward women?
A bit of history
In the United States., mail-order brides came onto the scene in the mid-1800s. Pioneering men who traveled West in search of land and wealth often did so alone. Once established, they found themselves in want of a wife and family (or any company at all, often). The frontiersmen revealed their needs in letter form, writing to churches and newspapers back East. Women looking to find husbands would respond to the men with letters and photographs of their own.
In the twentieth century, the term mail-order bride came to describe a woman from a developing country who advertised her intent to marry someone from a more financially developed country, particularly America. At one time, such mail-order brides could be ordered from a paper catalog, but today most arrangements are conducted online.
How it works
A host of agencies make it easy for prospective grooms and mail-order brides to find one another. Websites such as A Foreign Affair, Rose Brides, and Russian Cupid, are just a few examples.
Generally speaking, there are two primary types of international marriage agencies. The first sells the contact information of prospective “brides” to male clients and encourages the men and women to reach out and correspond with one another prior to meeting in person. The second offers meet-and-greet group tours. Through an agency, men can travel to a foreign country and meet dozens of women at organized social events.
While most twentieth century mail-order brides came from Southeast Asia, a large percentage of today’s mail-order intendeds are from Eastern Europe. Not all of these women are looking to escape dire financial circumstances—many are simply looking for a husband. Marriage is a big deal in Russia, for example, but there are only about eight men for every 10 women. Logistically, that makes really slim pickings for a woman who dreams of becoming a wife.
The legality of mail-order marriage
Mail-order nuptials, usually called brokered marriages, are indeed legal. And widespread. According to attorney Braden Perry of Kennyhertz Perry, LLC. “International marriage brokers (IMBs) are probably now more popular than ever due to the Internet and the easy access of information,” he says.
While it’s generally unregulated, there are certain federal laws that address this practice. “The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) requires strict adherence to certain rules and disclosures through a marriage broker,” explains Perry, “including information pertaining to the finances and criminal history of the prospective husband.”
IMBRA, which was passed in 2005, also demands full disclosure of a potential “groom’s” previous marital history. Until financial, criminal, and marital histories are turned over to the prospective bride, marriage consent cannot be granted.
IMBRA also requires IMBs to provide information to mail-order brides regarding their legal rights and resources pertaining to immigration, domestic violence, and child and spousal support. The overarching goal of IMBRA is to prevent the abuse of the international marriage system.
Is it safe?
Professional sexologist Michelle Hope says there’s a long list of both pros and cons in the mail-order bride business. “How,” she asks, “do we create a space for this process that is safe and non-exploitative to the parties who wish to find love in this manner?”
Many mail-order brides are in desperate situations and see no other way out. Such women, according to Hope, are being put up for sale. “The marketing of these mail-order purchases often revolves around a man’s ‘happiness’ and the women are bought with the sole purpose of being submissive and obedient,” she says. “What background checks and safety protocols are in place to protect the women involved in these types of arrangements?”
Fortunately, foreign brides have some protections, thanks to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which, notes attorney Perry, “includes provisions pertaining specifically to mail order brides entering the U.S.” Under this legislation, an immigrant bride who becomes a victim of domestic violence can apply for a green card without the assistance of her abuser.
In November 2004, a federal jury in Baltimore awarded $433,500 to Nataliya Fox in a suit against international marriage broker Encounters International. The agency’s owner, Natasha Spivak, arranged Fox’s marriage to a man who had a history of violent abuse against women. The jury found the broker guilty of fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, willful and wanton negligence, and unauthorized appropriation of Fox’s name and likeness.
Spivak, who is still in the business, was found liable for failing to inform Fox about her rights to escape the abusive marriage without deportation. She was also liable for claiming to screen prospective husbands, which she did not, and for publicizing Fox’s marriage as a “success story.”
Do mail-order marriages work?
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports that “marriages arranged through [IMB] services would appear to have a lower divorce rate than the nation as a whole, fully 80 percent of these marriages having lasted over the years for which reports are available.” The USCIS also reports that “mail-order bride and e-mail correspondence services result in 4,000 to 6,000 marriages between U.S. men and foreign brides each year.”
Promising? Yes. But before you jump online to find your international love, you might want to consult with an experienced family law attorney. He or she can help you find a legitimate international marriage broker and help ensure that your “mail-order” matrimony is for keeps.