Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the great Ukrainian bride hunt part 3

By Kristoffer A. Garin

In one form or another, the so-called mail-order bride has been part of American life since colonial days. Even today, many of New Orleans' older families claim to be descended from the “casket girls” Louis XV sent from France to wed Louisiana colonists in the early eighteenth century, the term derived from the chests the women were given to carry their few belongings. And although westerns and Harlequin novels have perhaps oversold the ubiquity of mail-order marriages on the frontier—much as the role of gunfighters in those days has been oversold—such unions, whether organized by religious groups or entrepreneurs, did take place throughout the pioneer era. Bachelor farmers wrote in search of wives not only to their support networks back East but all the way to the old country. The men's magazines of the day advertised the services of marriage brokers right alongside ads for snake-oil miracle cures and such cutting-edge mechanical marvels as the chain-driven bicycle. In turn-of-the-century Chicago alone, police broke up as many as 125 fraudulent marriage agencies, seizing and burning “wagon loads” of photographs of fictitious brides.

During most of the twentieth century, however—what with manifest destiny having been achieved, and the focus of American life having shifted from mining camps and cattle ranges to cities, suburbs, and malls—the phenomenon all but died out, except for a small traffic, impossible to quantify, which seems to have focused on women from Southeast Asia. Marriage agencies have sprung up only since the mid-1990s, when their founders spotted vast opportunity in the contemporaneous collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Internet. Whatever one chooses to call it, the bride's road from Kiev—or Moscow, or Bangkok, or Odessa, or Cartagena, Lima, Krivoi Rog, Manila, and dozens of other places where the women are desperate enough to sign up—begins online, where a lonely man can search a functional infinity of inviting profiles and then purchase the contact information of the women he likes for a few dollars apiece (“ADD TATIANA (77631) TO MY ORDER”), or at a volume discount (“FIND MORE WOMEN FROM DNEPROPETROVSK”). From there, he can correspond with them via email or telephone, visit their country for the in-person meeting required to begin the fiancĂ© visa process, and ultimately bring his chosen girl back to America within six to ten months. A full-service can take a man from mouse-click to matrimony for less than $10,000, orchestrating everything from travel and hotel arrangements to legal services to home delivery of flowers and chocolate—complete with digital photos of the woman's ecstatic reaction—while she waits for her paperwork to go through.

Steadily, the mail-order bride business has been industrializing, even as one recent poll indicated that three fourths of the American population is not aware that these so-called international marriage brokers (IMBs) can operate legally in the United States. The industry's profile, however, has been raised considerably in recent years by, among other things, a number of well-publicized murder cases: in 2000, the killing of a twenty-year-old woman from Kyrgyzstan named Anastasia King, whose husband turned out not only to have had a restraining order against him from a previous mail-order bride but to be seeking a new, third wife through an IMB; in 1995, of a Filipina named Susana Blackwell, eight months pregnant, whose husband gunned her down outside a Seattle courtroom on the last day of divorce proceedings; in 2003, of a twenty-six-year-old Ukrainian named Alla Barney, whose husband stabbed her to death in front of their young son's day-care facility.22. Such tragedies make for powerful headlines and fine political oratory, and in January, with Washington State, Missouri, Texas, and Hawaii all having already passed laws aimed at protecting foreign brides, President Bush signed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005, or IMBRA. Under the new law, which a marriage broker is challenging in court, IMBs falling under U.S. jurisdiction would be required to provide prospective brides with detailed information on any client requesting their information, including a search of federal and state sex-offender registries and a copy of the client's stated marital and criminal background. Nor would prospective brides have to rely solely on the IMBs for information; Homeland Security has always run background checks on Americans petitioning for a fiancé or spousal visa, and under the new law these results would be shared with their prospective wives, along with a pamphlet informing them of their rights, and the resources available to them, in the event of domestic violence.