U.S. lawmakers Tuesday heard testimony about the plight of so-called "mail order brides", women from other countries who marry American men whom they met through international marriage brokers. While many women find the love and happiness they seek, others find themselves victims of violence and prostitution.
Marriage brokers, for-profit companies that operate solely to connect men and women of different countries with the intent of getting married, have seen an explosive growth in business in recent years.
In 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioned a study that found that more than 200 international marriage brokers were operating around the globe, arranging between 4,000 and 6,000 marriages between American men and foreign women every year.
Today, experts put the number of international marriage brokers at nearly 500 worldwide. The experts estimate that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 women who have entered the United States using an international marriage broker in the last five years.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, has been looking into the phenomenon of "mail order brides", and has found some troubling trends.
While a number of such women find happy lives in the United States, others are not so fortunate. "Tragically, it is becoming apparent that there is a growing epidemic of domestic violence abuse among couples who met via international marriage brokers," she said. "Immigrant groups and women advocacy groups across the country report seeing an increase in the number of those who are seeking to escape physical abuse from husbands they met through international marriage brokers. In several cases the abuse progressed to murder."
Ms. Cantwell testified before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Chairman Sam Brownback of Kansas was clearly troubled by what he heard. "This is one of the dark clouds of globalization," he said.
Senator Cantwell said women meeting their husbands through marriage brokers frequently have little opportunity to get to know their prospective spouse, or assess the potential for violence. They also have little knowledge of their rights as victims of domestic violence in the United States, even if they are not yet citizens or permanent residents.
John Miller, director of the Trafficking in Persons Office at the State Department, said women are often recruited by marriage brokers, either directly or through family members, mail, newspapers or the internet. He says there is often a cash payment involved.
Mr. Miller said many of the women, who often come from poor economic circumstances, believe the opportunity could give them a brighter future.
"We know from rural villages in Asia, slums in major South American cities, women are deceived into leaving their homes and traveling across international borders in the hopes of marrying men who can provide them with better lives," he said.
But Mr. Miller says frequently these women find abuse, whether they go to the United States or elsewhere.
He cited reports indicating extensive trafficking in women from Vietnam to Taiwan, where they marry Taiwanese men who then sell them to brothels.
Donna Hughes, professor of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island, is not surprised by such reports. "A number of the marriage agency websites have links to pornographic websites and prostitution services, so it is easy to see how the intersections of these two types of services would enable the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women," she said.
Statistics are not available for how many women are abused by the spouses they have met through marriage brokers. Many victims are afraid to report such abuse.
In an effort to improve the plight of such women in the United States, Senator Cantwell has introduced legislation that would better inform women entering the country about whether their prospective spouse has a history of domestic violence or a criminal background. It would also provide them with information about their legal rights if they find themselves in abusive relationship.