Brides, made to order

Marriage by mail is risky business, but it’s booming around the world

By JIM HALEY

Herald Writer

If you’re a single man with a little money, you have a worldwide menu of female companions from which to choose.

Click on the Internet or open the right magazine and you can find dozens of organizations displaying the photographs and biographies of thousands of women from Russia, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

For a fee, you can get traditional or e-mail addresses, or even telephone numbers from these international matchmaking organizations. They sell you a little bit of information and let the parties decide if there’s a mail-order bride to be.

The mail-order bride business is big, growing and is evident even in Snohomish County.

Entering these waters can be fulfilling or treacherous, however.

There are abusive men looking for a submissive wife. There are unscrupulous women willing to put up with a man for two years, looking for easy entry into the United States and eventual citizenship.

In a report done for Congress last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service says more than 200 international matchmaking companies were operating in the United States in 1998. They annually put together between 4,000 and 6,000 couples.

The majority of the women come from the Philippines, Russia or the newly independent states of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the report says.

Sometimes love blooms through the electronic messages flashed across international borders via e-mail.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

The case of a missing Mountlake Terrace mail-order bride from the former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan points out some of the difficulties and perils.

Anastasia Soloveva King was last seen Sept. 22 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after returning from a three-week visit with her parents. Police have distributed fliers with her picture, hoping neighbors or somebody has seen her more recently.

Officials aren’t saying she is the victim of foul play, but they find it hard to understand why she would suddenly leave her friends, not contact her parents, abandon a job she liked and not attend classes at the University of Washington where she was enrolled.

Also, in 1995, a mail-order bride from the Philippines, Susana Blackwell, was shot to death by an abusive husband in the hallway of the King County Courthouse. She, two companions and her unborn baby died outside a courtroom after divorce papers were filed. The husband is serving life in prison.

The co-owner of one of the largest mail-order bride businesses, Ron Redburn of Arizona-based A Foreign Affair, said the women he recruits in the former Soviet Union and in South America are "looking to change their lives."

That means changing their economic status, "hopefully falling in love and having children. It’s certainly a smart move for many of these girls," Redburn said.

He’s not only a company owner, but he’s also a customer. He and his three partners all were single when they went into the Internet-based business five years ago. Now they’re all married to women from the former Soviet Union.

The cost varies from business to business. Sometimes a male client pays $10 per name and address to contact women in places such as Kiev, St. Petersburg, Cartagena or Manila.

Redburn charges $95 for a membership, giving his customers access to the names, photographs, biographies and addresses of 20,000 women. With offices in Kiev and St. Petersburg, he adds hundreds of names a month.

He also makes money by organizing international tours of male clients to meet prospective female mates at social gatherings.

"I must say our romance tours offer probably the best vacation and adventure bargain in the travel industry today," Redburn said.

Many companies also sell services such as delivering flowers and gifts, translation and arranging tour visas.

The industry has its critics in high places.

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has been a national leader fighting for women’s rights. This year, she was a sponsor of a bill attacking exploitation of women and children in the sex industry.

In the early 1990s, she wrote a bill that eased immigration regulations governing mail-order brides who are abused.

"We found lots of cases where spouses were abused and practically enslaved with (the possibility of) citizenship being held over their head," Slaughter said by telephone.

Her law allows abused alien women and children to petition on their own for permanent resident status or citizenship. That’s a request normally left up to the American partner.

The law requires "good-faith" marriages, meaning couples must stay together for at least two years before the foreign spouse becomes eligible for permanent residence.

Slaughter finds mail-order marriages distasteful.

"The whole notion of starting a life together that way is anathema to me," she said, adding she hasn’t decided whether it should be regulated further.

Some people find no problems with the mail-order bride business.

A former University of Florida professor, Robert Scholes, is one of the few academics who has studied the phenomenon, an old business that has taken on renewed life with the advent of the Internet and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Overall, Scholes doesn’t see a problem, and he doesn’t see a need for government regulation.

"The government has no business telling me who I can marry," Scholes said.

The business is responsible for a tiny percentage of the marriages in this country, and he found evidence of little abuse in the marriages, or of abuse of the system just to get into this country.

"Everyone I talked to signed up because they were sincerely interested in finding an American husband," Scholes said.

There’s a growing number of mail-order brides in this area, and many are taking advantage of educational and English opportunities at Everett and Edmonds community colleges, said Van Dinh-Kuno, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Forum of Snohomish County.

Four years ago, she would see perhaps a half-dozen mail-order brides at EvCC, where the organization is based. Now there are 15 or 20.

Most are Russian, and most of the rest have Asian origins.

"Some are happy with their relationship," she said. "Some want to get out as soon as possible."

One problem she sees frequently is husbands who are bent on closely watching their wives. Some call or come to the college to make sure their foreign-born wives are where they’re supposed to be.

Typically, men who seek mail-order brides are much older than the women, and these men tend to dominate or control the relationship, Scholes said.

Those are just characteristics of some participants, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, he added.

"They would do that (control) with an American woman," he said. "I can’t think of any way you can legislate against men being control freaks."

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