For Better, Then Worse

Love, marriage, and the maddening plight of a Russian bride

Despite the Herculean efforts of the computer wizards downstairs, we still get reams of spam on our server. A few weeks ago, a bunch of us started receiving e-mails with the subject line, "For better or worse, Russian brides work," containing a web link to a mail-order marriage site, complete with Kmart-quality glamour shots, a numerical rating system (with one being "plain," and 10 "ready to model"), and answers to what I can only assume are the most frequently asked questions.

Why date or marry a Russian woman?: American women can have attitudes that are difficult to deal with. They are often demanding and hard to please. Russian women on the other hand are so unspoiled. In many less-developed countries, like countries of the former Soviet Union, women have a much lower social status than men. Russian men are often abusive and disrespectful toward women. This is what Russian women are used to. Compared to that, the life you can give her will make her happy and grateful.

Normally, I would have sent the message straight to the virtual trash heap, but having just interviewed a Russian native named Tatiana, who was introduced to me by local immigration attorney Sonseere Goldenberg, it was harder to dismiss the site as just another insignificant, albeit sickening, sign of the times.

Goldenberg, who spends 10 hours a week doing work for a St. Paul-based nonprofit called Civil Society, says that local shelters for battered women are crowded with Eastern European women like Tatiana who met and married men from the U.S. via online dating services or mail-order bride schemes. There's no available data documenting how many women have left that part of the world--often to escape poverty or some form of persecution--only to find themselves subject to abuse, servitude, or sexual slavery. Over the last 18 months, though, Civil Society has taken on at least three clients a week whose experiences are similar to Tatiana's--women who are seeking asylum and hoping to keep the legal immigration status that was initially sponsored by their citizen husbands. And these clients represent just a very small sampling of the women in Minnesota who have dared to come forward. A congressional study done in the early '90s estimates that 70 percent of those women whose immigration status is dependent upon their husbands suffer some form of "battery or extreme cruelty."

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was passed in 1994 in large part because of lobbying work done by the late Sheila Wellstone, allows a foreign spouse or child who is being abused to file for legal immigration status without the knowledge or involvement of the husband. Oftentimes, though, women from other countries don't know anything about VAWA--or, if they do, don't have the language skills to take advantage of the law without the help of a lawyer.

That's why groups like Civil Society, which conduct clinics and do immigrant outreach in community centers or social service agencies around the state, are so crucial. "The advocates we work with are often the only people these women can trust; they are of their own culture, speak their language, and many even know them personally," Miller explains. "It usually takes that amount of trust for these women to come forward."

Once a woman does cry for help, capable attorneys such as Goldenberg are available to usher them through a legal labyrinth presided over by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services; that agency, formerly know as the INS, was made an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security by Attorney General John Ashcroft in late January. Hypothetically, the system is supposed to take its cue from VAWA, and err on the side of protecting the abused. Since 9/11, however, the process has been bogged down by bureaucracy and paranoia, leaving the status of a number of women in limbo while their applications crawl through the system. "Even if you do everything right," Goldenberg complains, "Immigration Services just isn't equipped to handle the volume, and women are getting stuck."

In other words, while the nation wrings its hands over the status of 18-to-34-year-old males, abused women are being pushed to the back of the line. "Things have definitely gotten more difficult post-9/11," Miller says. "There are more delays and much more scrutiny. And, yes, I fear that it will only get harder."

To make matters worse, state budget cuts are playing havoc with the social service agencies Civil Society depends on to help reach victims. "People on the frontlines are being eliminated," Miller concludes. "For instance, we do work at the Fifth District Planning Council in St. Paul. Three years ago, there were three full-time employees there. Now there is an executive director, and no one else. We just have a key and use the space. So that means that the net those people cast--one man who worked there was Hmong--is no longer there. We can use the site, but it's not nearly as valuable.

"We are a group of lawyers, mostly, so we are not poised to be on those front lines alone. We are not automatically trusted. We don't speak Hmong or Spanish or Russian."

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