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Senate Panel Hears Testimony on Human Trafficking and Mail Order Brides

On July 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Human Trafficking: Mail Order Bride Abuses.”

Chair Sam Brownback (R-KS) called the misuse of the mail order bride business for sexual exploitation “one of the dark clouds” of the globalization process and said that it degrades the institution of marriage. He stressed the importance of protecting women from abuse and indicated his support for legislation (S. 1455) introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act would limit applications for fiancé(e) visas to one per year; require marriage brokers to explain the rights of domestic violence victims in the United States to foreign clients; require U.S. clients to undergo a criminal background check and require that information to be made available to foreign clients. It also commissions the attorney general to conduct a study “that examines…the extent to which persons with a history of violence are using the services of international marriage brokers.” Similar legislation (H.R. 2949) sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) was introduced in the House.

Testifying before the subcommittee, Sen. Cantwell explained the purpose of her bill: “Today, an American seeking to marry someone through an international marriage broker holds all of the cards. The American client has the benefit of a complete background check on his future wife, which is a requirement of the immigration process. In addition, the brokers provide clients with extensive information about the women they offer, everything from their favorite movies and hobbies to whether they are sexually promiscuous. Conversely, the foreign fiancée only gets whatever information her future spouse wants to share. These women have no way of confirming what they are told about previous marriages or relationships or the American client’s criminal history…My legislation would give foreign fiancées critical information they need to make an informed decision about the person whom they plan to marry.”

Sen. Cantwell cited a 1999 study of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which reported an increase in the number of international marriage brokers during the past five years, from more than 200 in 1999 to nearly 500 today. “And, based on the 1999 statistics, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 women who have entered the U.S. using an international marriage broker in the past five years,” she said. “Tragically, it is becoming apparent that there is a growing epidemic of domestic abuse among couples who meet via international marriage brokers.”

When asked by Sen. Brownback why a fiancée would be interested in coming to the U.S. to marry a man knowing so little about him, Sen. Cantwell explained, “These women come from very poor economic circumstances.” She said that immigrating to the U.S. is viewed also as an economic opportunity for the fiancée’s family, who hope that their daughter will bring them to America after she is married.

John Miller, director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, condemned human trafficking as modern-day slavery that is “brutal not just to the minds and bodies of victims, but to their souls.” He applauded U.S. efforts to end trafficking, noting that 11 government agencies operate under the President’s Interagency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons, and more than $70 million was allocated in FY2003 to anti-trafficking programs. Mr. Miller commended Sen. Cantwell for her “humanitarian concern” and called S. 1455 an “important component” in the effort to end trafficking.

Mr. Miller pointed out that some human traffickers recruit victims directly with offers of marriage. He told the story of a young Cambodian woman, Pou, who was sold into slavery after marrying a man who had come to her village. Her husband sold her to a brothel, where she was forced to perform sexual favors under the threat of beatings. A few years later when she was ravaged by disease, the brothel threw her out on the street; Pou managed to make her way to a faith-based shelter in Phnom Penh.

Addressing the issue of international marriage brokers and human trafficking, Mr. Miller stated, “We believe marriage brokers…are used to facilitate trafficking in persons. Documenting this trend, however, is not easy.” He stressed that this is a “worldwide phenomenon.”

Michele Clark, co-director of the Protection Project at The Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies, asked, “How did we get to this point? Why is this happening?” She then explained that mail order bride trafficking “exploits the normal desires for hopes of a better life,” as well as opportunities for education and a more equal relationship in marriage. Ms. Clark said that in many countries matchmaking is an acceptable practice, but now the traditional matchmaker, a person known to the families, is being replaced by the Internet, which is impersonal, anonymous, commercial, and profit seeking. “Some organizations, such as Alena Russian Brides Marriage Agency, even use computer icons similar to those found on Internet catalogue sites, complete with pictures of shopping carts and money back guarantees.” It is no wonder, then, Ms. Clark said, that the woman is viewed as a commodity.

Warning that “the mail order bride industry is largely unregulated,” Ms. Clark stated, “Regulation is urgently needed to eliminate the existing biases that favor the male clients and to counter with protective regulation the conditions of vulnerability mail-order brides find themselves in within the contemporary context of the mail-order bride industry.”

Donna Hughes, professor and Carlson Endowed Chair of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island, highlighted the frequent connections between marriage agencies and the sex industry. “Many of the marriage agencies are part of larger commercial operations that offer a number of services, some of which are blatantly connected to the sex industry or involve the sexual exploitation of women. These multiple services include: the marriage agency, tours for men to meet women, escort services (prostitution), modeling agencies, production of pornography, and travel agencies. A number of the marriage agency web sites have links to pornographic web sites and prostitution services,” she said. Dr. Hughes noted that many marriage agency websites offer underage girls, some as young as 10 years old. She also expressed her concern that images and texts on these websites may attract pedophiles.

Although many cases are documented, Dr. Hughes said that it is difficult “to prove involvement of these agencies in sex trafficking as the crime is defined by law, which requires proof of force, fraud, or coercion.” She reported that the government of the Philippines banned the operation of marriage agencies and sex tour agencies in the 1990s, but she was not aware of any prosecutions.

Suzanne Jackson, associate professor of clinical law at The George Washington Law School, detailed the legal aspects of trafficking and international marriage organizations (IMOs). “IMOs have been linked to criminal trafficking in several ways. They can be nothing more than fronts for criminal trafficking organizations, in which adults and girls are offered to the public as brides but sold privately into prostitution, forced into marriage (including marriages to men who prostitute them), or held in domestic slavery.” She added, “Although the Department of Justice is enforcing the criminal laws against international travel for purposes of having sex with a child, not one sex trafficking case has been brought against an individual who has used a mail-order bride organization to obtain and sexually exploit a vulnerable immigrant woman.” Ms. Jackson commended Sen. Cantwell’s bill, but noted that laws need to be enforced. “Congress in 1996 ordered IMOs to provide information to their ‘recruits’ on their rights under U.S. laws. Eight years later, this law is still not implemented or enforced,” she stated.