But international matchmaking law meant to protect foreign brides from abuse has stepped on the seams of some American men’s dreams
The climate is the only thing that’s frigid:
I’m sorry, Solzhenitsyn, that you lived long enough to see Siberia go from poster child for chain gangs and gulags to an American-man’s bridal marketplace.
‘Ol Dissident Sol, now pushing 90, made it back to the Russia of his hard-labor-camp “youth” in 1994, after 20-years of exile in the West — a morally corrupt, materialistic, and vapid pop-culture he was happy to escape, he said (Sol never has a kind word for a host country; that’s what got him in trouble in the first place). Some time later, San Antonio’s Ashley Neal got the idea to use his Baylor business degree to set up a romantic lifeline connecting American menfolk with Sol’s countrywomen. Today, U.S. men can trawl through profiles and videos of more than 2,200 single Siberian women on Neal’s website, FacesofSiberia.com, and pay up to $10,000 for the opportunity to marry “women ... not spoiled by the modern materialistic world,” the site promises. Neal claims to have personally videotaped and interviewed more single Russian women than any other man in the world.
“The fact that we are in Siberia does not mean that we are cold, no, our hearts are hot,” a red-lipped Russian says on a Fox News video clip (also on his site) about Neal’s international matchmaking.
Neal, a handsome, somewhat earnest-looking guy, with his own silvery-white-skinned blonde Russian wife, also appears on the clip. “We are not peddling women,” he says. “We are helping people find love and happiness.”
Liberators vs. abusers:
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act was a rider tacked onto the Violence Against Women Act that President Bush signed into law in January and took effect this March. The groups that lobbied in support of IMBRA didn’t portray matchmaking agencies like Neal’s as altruistic cupids, and the men who use international marriage services — the majority of whom come from California and Texas, a 2003 NBC-San Diego news investigation said — were frequently depicted as abusers. Organizations like the Tahirih Justice Center, an international women’s-rights group based in Virginia, and a group of lawmakers from Kansas, Virginia, and Washington state presented Congress with largely anecdotal evidence of domestic violence against mail-order brides; they also presented multiple cases in which those women were slain by their American husbands — a number of whom had violent histories, unbeknownst to the wives — like retired Army sergeant Jack Reeves of Arlington, Texas.
In 1978, the death of Reeves’s second wife was ruled a suicide: Sharon Reeves had apparently killed herself with a .20-gauge shotgun by pulling the trigger with her toe, the investigators said. A third wife, Korean-born Myong Reeves, drowned in 3 feet of water at Lake Whitney (her body was cremated, forever sealing her case). Jack Reeves then turned to the services of an international marriage broker called “Cherry Blossoms,” which, according to its current website, has helped more than 50,000 couples meet for love and marriage over the past 30-plus years.
Reeves brought over and married Emelita from the Phillipines. Before the 26-year-old mail-order bride disappeared in 1994, she complained to family and friends that her husband physically and sexually abused her, and that she planned to leave him.
“A hunter found Emelita’s partially buried remains a year later near Lake Whitney, about 60 miles south of their Dallas-Fort Worth-area home,” the AP reported in 1996, “But investigators were unable to determine how she died.” That year, Reeves was convicted of killing both his second and fourth wives (Emelita’s case gave investigators reason to re-open Sharon’s). A book about the crimes came out in 1999, called Mail Order Murder. It’s a popular title. That was also the name of a 2003 episode of A&E’s American Justice, detailing the unrelated murder of a Russian mail-order bride.
“We don’t have reliable prevalence statistics because the FBI doesn’t track `abused or murdered` women by how they met their husbands,” Layli Miller-Muro, executive director for the Tahirih Justice Center said in an interview with the Current. Her group estimates that as many as 15,000 foreign women meet their American husbands through for-profit marriage brokers every year.
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act mandates that agencies screen American clients (IMBRA is supposed to be gender-neutral, but you all know they mean men) and give prospective brides an account, in their native languages, of clients’ marital histories, criminal records, places of residence since age 16, and the ages of their children that are under 18. And it goes even further, placing a cap on the number of mail-order brides a man can have in his lifetime. He cannot apply for more than two foreign-fiancée visas total; and they can’t be within two years of each other unless a waiver is granted (but be advised: The federal government doesn’t seem to be especially sympathetic to matters of the heart. Just look at its stance on gay marriage).
Miller-Muro said it’s this part of the newly enacted IMBRA that has yielded trackable results: A Virginia man who had been abusing a marriage agency’s “satisfaction-guaranteed policy” (if you don’t like the one you got, the next one’s free) while also abusing his wives — the third and fourth mail-order wives had ended up in an emergency room and a domestic-violence shelter, with the Tahirih Justice Center’s help — fell under IMBRA’s lifetime-cap clause this year. He’s banned from ever sponsoring a foreign fiancée again, and he’s called his congressman to complain about it, Miller-Muro said.
| “The government tells you whom you are allowed to speak with and whom you are allowed to marry, and declares that American men are abusers!” |
But it’s not this part of the act that has most men (and one conservative feminist writing for Fox News and living in Canada) up in arms.
“The government tells you whom you are allowed to speak with and whom you are allowed to marry, and declares that American men are abusers!” Imbra.org declares. (Opponents of IMBRA were quick to get the most obvious domain name for anyone researching the law. Kudos. But they sound a little shrill when they start with the sloganeering: “Burn your IMBRA”; “American men are liberators not abusers”; and my favorite, listed on the website’s list of goals, the “Deportation of all feminists.” Does that make them then eligible for mail-order-bride importation?)
“Corresponding with a foreigner is legal. Marrying a foreigner is legal.” Wendy McElroy writes on Foxnews.com. “Now American men who wish to pursue a legal activity must release their government files to a foreign business and foreign individuals for their personal benefit.”
Matrimony, Homeland Security, and other frustrations:
Ilovelatins.com exclusively promotes the lovely ladies of Barranquilla, Colombia. The marriage agency’s “bricks-and-mortar” operation is headquartered in Houston, Texas, and is run by Sam Smith and his wife Consuelo, who met and married through the romance tour company.
“A friend brought me to one of his parties,” Consuelo, 26, said in a phone interview with the Current. “I said, ‘What is all this about?’ and she said ‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said, ‘just smile.’”
That first party was uneventful for the pair (Sam had his hands full as matchmaker), but two years later, Consuelo moved close to the hotel Puerta del Sol, where Sam was hosting another party. She showed up and, surprisingly, he offered her a job: coordinating English classes for the Colombians and translating American love letters into Spanish. They spoke every day and, over the course of two more years, fell in love.
Sam, a 46-year-old divorcé (twice over), says he fits the profile of the kind of American man who uses such romance services (No. 1 client trait: a disenchantment with the ways of that willful, selfish, new-fangled modern American female. “I want someone like my grandma,” he said.).
Consuelo had grown up in a single-parent home in the Barranquilla barrio, and wanted a responsible man, preferably a non-drinker, a homebody, perhaps an older gentleman, “because I don’t like young people never.” She says the Latin-American playboys her age could only teach her about clothes and clubs and perfume. What she likes most about Sam is his sincerity, she says.
It took nine months to obtain her fiancée visa — and that was before IMBRA. Last month, USA Today reported that red-tape associated with the Homeland Security Department “put wedding bells on hold for about 10,000 U.S. citizens seeking visas for their foreign brides and grooms,” because additional information is needed to meet new IMBRA protection.
Since June 2000, Smith’s Ilovelatins.com has taken 36 sets of American men, in groups of 15 to 20, to meet up to 700 ladies over a five-day vacation (translator available, social balls at a five-star hotel included) in Colombia, which has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the West, thanks to conflict between the government and guerrilla groups. Still, the stage is set for hot-blooded Americans and dreamy Latinas, meeting at a ration of one fella for every 35 ladies. (The website is very bikini-photo top-heavy; these women are nothing like Colombian telenovela export Betty La Fea. “Guys are visual,” Smith said. “They want to see a pretty girl, that’s No. 1.”) With a purported 25,000 Colombian women passing through the chute over the years, you’d imagine Ilovelatins.com would have yielded more than the company’s confirmed 110 marriages. But Smith says he encourages his clients to be picky, to take their time and not go with the first pretty face that turns their head.
“I help sincere people ... looking for a faithful, lifetime partner,” Smith said.
So how’s business been since IMBRA? The guys have privacy concerns about handing over personal history to unknown, and perhaps desperate women, or whoever else intercepts the mail on the “donkey express” route, Smith said — it’s an extra burden on the marriage agency. And though he knows the law was meant to protect and inform women, he says, “Eight children in Houston were killed by falling TVs `on unsteady stands`. Should we get rid of all the TVs?” In a way, he sounds like that old coot Solzhenitsyn, who said: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
Consuelo tells Sam not to worry about the law, that maybe it will root out the agencies and men spoiling the image of international matchmakers.
“I tell him ‘If they all quit, there will be just the good ones working.’”
Meanwhile, federal courts in Ohio and Georgia are considering IMBRA in light of lawsuits brought by a trade association of marriage brokers who say the act is unconstitutional, limiting freedom of association and speech; that it constitutes a heavy intrusion into the companies’ business models. An intrusion that does not apply to online cupids like Match.com, because, the reasoning goes, they have a small international dating population and the client list includes women willing and able to throw some money around for love. It’s the socioeconomic imbalance between American men and immigrant women that makes the situation rife for exploitation, supporters of IMBRA contend. For better or for worse, the Georgia court has told European Connections, a broker connecting Western gentlemen with Russian and Ukrainian women since 1992, that it does not have to follow every letter of the matchmaking law until the court renders a decision later this year.
But the director of the Virginia-based women’s justice center said lawmakers are looking to build upon IMBRA. And, according to Miller-Muro, the next federal development addressing this part of our romantic world will be a law prohibiting convicted sex offenders from ever realizing the American man’s mail-order-bride dream.