CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Christopher Cruise.
FAITH LAPIDUS: And I'm Faith Lapidus. Some people will celebrate this Valentine's Day with someone they met on the Internet through a dating site. But dating sites are not the only online places where people look for relationships.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: This week on our program, we look at international marriage brokers who help American men marry women from other countries.
FAITH LAPIDUS: The Internet is at the heart of a modern business with a long history. In America, the business of men sending for women from other countries began in the Old West in the eighteen hundreds.
There were many men living on the frontier. These included the "forty-niners" -- men who moved to California in eighteen forty-nine to search for gold. But there were very few women willing to join them.
As a result, demand grew for women from other countries. They were called "picture brides" -- better known today as "mail-order brides."
These days, women who advertise online for husbands are sometimes called "e-mail-order brides." But some people consider either term insulting. They say it suggests that the women are products that can be purchased.
Finding an American husband, they say, might provide an escape from a life of poverty or danger or loneliness. No one blames people for seeking a better life. But critics say this business sometimes seems like just another form of human trafficking.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: One study of agencies that list women seeking husbands found there were around ten thousand "mail-order marriages" a year. About four thousand of these involved men from the United States.
Other husbands were Canadian, Australian, European and Japanese. The women were mostly Filipino or Russian, although there were listings of women from almost every country.
But these marriage numbers may be low. They are from a report published in nineteen ninety-seven when the Internet was still young.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Former Air Force officer David Knabel met his Russian wife through an international marriage brokerage. He says he was so happy, he later bought the company. The business is called A Volga Girl, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Mr. Knabel introduces Russian women to American men.
DAVID KNABEL: "Why a few, very low percentage of ladies from Russia that are interested in finding a foreign husband is because of the problem with the Russian men. There's a huge contingent of Russian men that are alcoholics and womanizers and several of the ladies have gone through that and they just don't want that kind of man for their husband."
Mr. Knabel's company has been in business for eleven years. He says just five percent of the marriages have ended in divorce, a claim that is difficult to confirm.
He points out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation must do a background check on a man before he can bring a woman to America.
DAVID KNABEL: "What protects the lady is when the FBI does their background check, and if this guy's got a criminal record he's not going to be allowed to bring a lady here."
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Other requirements involve the agency known as ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For example, couples must have met at least once in person sometime in the last two years.
A fiancé visa can let people come to the United States. But once they arrive they must get married within ninety days or return to their home country.
FAITH LAPIDUS: The Tahirih Justice Center is a nonprofit group in the Washington area. It helps immigrant women who have been abused by American husbands. Heather Heiman is a lawyer there.
HEATHER HEIMAN: "We try not to demonize or vilify the international marriage brokerage industry as a whole. We understand that there are some brokered relationships out there that do end in happy marriages. But what we have unfortunately encountered is many situations where brokered marriages have not ended in happy relationships. And unfortunately when abusive situations do occur, the abuse can be horrific."
Ms. Heiman says foreign wives often do not know there are laws that protect them, even if they are not citizens.
HEATHER HEIMAN: "In our experience, foreign brides are just often particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. For example, they're dependent on their husbands for their legal immigration status. When they come over here they may be isolated from their support network of family and friends. They might have limited English skills. And often what we've found is they don't know that domestic violence is a crime in this country or even where to seek help if they're being abused."
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: There have been some studies of the practice of foreign women marrying American men. Some women use international marriage brokers. Others join American dating websites.
An estimated sixty percent of the women are twenty-five or younger. Half of the men are over the age of thirty-seven.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Researchers say power and control may be more important than love to men who seek a foreign wife. This may be true especially of men seeking a woman who advertises herself as "traditional." The men often say American women want a career and are not happy with "only" being a wife and mother.
One study found that most of the men are white, have some college education and are economically middle class. The majority are politically and socially conservative. Most live in cities. Most have been married before. And most want children.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: John Baker is white, middle-class, divorced and conservative. He is sixty-four and retired from the Army. Mr. Baker has been talking with a woman in Russia for the past four years. Her name is Svetlana.
They talk online but Mr. Baker says he has also visited her. He says Svetlana is fifty-five years old and, like himself, has children who are grown. Mr. Baker says he knew there was a chance he could be tricked while looking for a relationship online.
JOHN BAKER: "I knew that there was a lot of scamming going on, mostly criminal men who would post some really gorgeous girl's pictures on a website. And sometimes they win -- they take advantage of some guy. I went into this with my eyes open to that possibility and avoided that."
John Baker says he wants to bring Svetlana to the United States and marry her as soon as he has enough money saved.
FAITH LAPIDUS: John Adams has owned an international marriage brokerage in Phoenix, Arizona, for sixteen years. His business is called A Foreign Affair. Mr. Adams says there are a lot of mistaken beliefs about American men who want to marry foreign women.
JOHN ADAM: "These aren't guys that are losers, these aren't guys that can't get dates. These are guys that are very proactive. And they're trying to find the best possibilities for what's going to be the most important decision they ever make in their life -- who to spend the rest of their life with, who to build their family with. The stigma of 'Oh, they just want to go marry someone and bring her over and tie her up in the basement and keep her as a sex slave' is just ludicrous."
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: In two thousand five, Congress passed a law that included what is known as IMBRA, the International Marriage Broker Registration Act. This legislation followed highly publicized cases of violence by American men against their foreign wives.
IMBRA bars an American with a history of violent crimes from bringing someone to the United States to marry. If the American has a record of other crimes, then the foreign spouse is supposed to receive a copy.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Heather Heiman at the Tahirih Justice Center says the law has some problems. But she says it has helped women who have been abused.
HEATHER HEIMAN: "What IMBRA does is it just introduces some common-sense safeguards that we're going to allow foreign women to make informed decisions and to better protect themselves. For example, one thing that IMBRA created was a fact sheet that should be distributed by international marriage brokers and by the US government that will inform a foreign bride about her rights and about resources available in the United States if she finds herself in a situation of abuse or exploitation."
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: In some cases, there may be a question of whether a foreign wife is exploiting her American husband -- using him just to come to America.
One study found three times when a relationship involving a foreign bride most commonly ends. The first is immediately upon coming to America. The next is three months after the marriage. This is when the wife may be declared a legal resident of the United States.
And the third is two years after the marriage, when the wife can seek permission to stay permanently.
FAITH LAPIDUS: Marriage broker David Knabel says he advertises women who went to college and have professional jobs. But he agrees that not all the companies in his industry work like that.
DAVID KNABEL: "You can't group all international marriage agencies into one piece, just like you can't group all companies being all the same. I mean there's a lot of agencies out there that specialize in third-world country brides, that are coming from poverty, uneducated, that kind of thing."
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Lawyer Heather Heiman says she sees only the bad side of the industry because she works with women who have been mistreated. She agrees that some brokered marriages work, but she says agencies sometimes create unrealistic expectations in men.
HEATHER HEIMAN: "For example they may market women on their websites as traditional or submissive or promote them as great investments."
She says, in her experience, the kind of men who use an international marriage broker may be looking for a kind of woman who does not exist anymore in America.
HEATHER HEIMAN: "One thing, unfortunately, that I think we have seen is some of them that are interested and partake of this industry are really, sort of, resisting the progress of women, I guess I would say. They're looking, it seems to us, for a type of woman that existed in the forties and fifties and perhaps doesn't conform with the typical type of woman you'd find today. And that's again just something that raises a flag for us and that sometimes can be a cause for concern. These mismatched expectations can just lead to problems."
FAITH LAPIDUS: What do you think of the business of international marriage brokers? You can post comments at 51voa.com or on Facebook at VOA Learning English.
I'm Faith Lapidus with Christopher Cruise, who wrote this week's program. Brianna Blake was our producer. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.