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January|February 2004
Mrs. America By Nadya Labi
A Short History of Sunsets By Chris Mooney
Daughters of the Cold War By Michael Freedman

Mrs. America

The business of mail-order marriage.

By Nadya Labi

ELENA PETRENKO, A UKRAINIAN BLONDE, looked like cotton candy as she rehearsed her lines for the video camera. Wearing fitted white jeans, high heels, and a frilly pink shirt, she said, in halting English, "I want someone who has a heart that is ready to join my heart for a happy family."

"Is that right?" she stopped to ask Natasha Spivack, who stood behind the camera. Spivack nodded impatiently and pressed the start button. Petrenko flipped her hair, flashed a smile, and began: "Hi, my name is Elena. I'm from Kiev. I'm doctor. I have medical education. I have child. His name is Daniel. I'm a kind and romantic person." She took a deep breath before delivering her big line: "I wait for man who's ready with love for me and happy family."

Petrenko was updating her portfolio for Spivack's company, Encounters International. On one wall of the cramped Encounters office, in Rockville, Md., was a map covered by miniature photos of beaming couples pasted onto red paper hearts. The hearts represented the 250 marriages that Spivack has brokered—only 25 of which, she says, have ended in divorce.

At any given time, Encounters has a database of about 400 women from the former Soviet Union. Each is eager to become the next Mrs. America. Some pose in skimpy bikinis for the snapshots that are included in their portfolios. Others try out come-hither looks. But almost all of them trumpet their devotion to family with quotes like "I dream of becoming a kind mother to my children." If a woman snags the attention of one of Encounters' paying male clients, she can also land a K-1 fiancée visa to the United States, which gives her 90 days to get married—or go home.

Petrenko came to Spivack's office at a delicate time. Back in the Ukraine, she'd met an American businessman through a friend who worked as his translator. The man had invited Petrenko and her 10-year-old son to his home in Manassas, Va., and had sponsored her K-1 visa. But the welcome wore thin within days. Elena and her son found themselves living with two adult dogs who weren't housebroken and who had the run of the place. And the businessman revealed a mean streak, often complaining about the amount she spent on food. Petrenko had no money of her own. Her visa required that she either marry the man or leave, but she was determined to meet someone else. Never mind the failure of her first attempt. Her return ticket to Kiev was still about two months away.

PETRENKO TURNED TO SPIVACK because she'd joined Encounters in Kiev more than a year earlier. In that respect, she was luckier than many of her countrywomen who have made a similar journey. A mail-order bride usually arrives at the airport with little money and a support network of one—her future husband. Her continuing legal presence in the United States hinges on the survival of that relationship. If she decides to get married, she must negotiate the terrain of matrimony in a foreign culture and with an unusual degree of dependence on her suitor. The would-be husband, for his part, stands a chance of being duped by a woman who finds his most winning attribute to be his American citizenship. Agencies like Encounters that facilitate the arrivals of the brides stand at the center of these tensions. They have been accused by some of putting women like Petrenko at risk of abuse, and by others of enabling opportunistic brides to defraud smitten admirers.

So far, no definitive studies have confirmed the industry's bad rap. In the 1996 Mail-Order Bride Act, Congress directed the Department of Justice to investigate fraud and domestic violence in mail-order marriages. But immigration officials don't collect data on these relationships, so after three years of fact-gathering the DOJ could offer only preliminary and suspect statistics. Based on 266 immigration cases, a small sample, DOJ reported that matchmaking agencies did not play a significant role in marriage fraud. Investigators also found that mail-order brides suffer abuse less frequently than homegrown wives. On the strength of anecdotal evidence that some mail-order brides are abused, however, the 1996 law required international marriage brokers to tell foreign brides about their rights to claim certain immigration benefits if they become victims of domestic violence. A battered immigrant spouse can "self-petition" to adjust her legal status without the help of her husband and before the usual two-year waiting period expires.

The grisly killing of the mail-order bride Anastasia King in 2000 convinced some lawmakers that they hadn't gone far enough. King, who came to Washington State from Kyrgyzstan, was murdered by her nearly 300-pound husband, who sat on her while his accomplice strangled her to death. Then last September Alla Barney, an emigrant from the Ukraine, was fatally stabbed in Mount Laurel, N.J., allegedly by the American husband she met through a matchmaking agency.

The agencies should put warning labels on men like these, feminist critics argue. King had no idea that her husband had previously divorced another immigrant bride, who had obtained a protective order against him, or that before King's death he had sought a third bride to replace her. A new bill called the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act would force agencies to ask each male client about his marital history and criminal background. Proposed last summer by Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Rick Larsen, Democrats from Washington State, the law strengthens the requirement that agencies must tell women about their immigration rights, a rule that has yet to be enforced. Under the new bill, brokers who don't comply would face up to five years in prison in addition to fines of up to $20,000, which are already on the books.

Marriage is fraught with risk. Expectations shift over time, and even the luckiest of partners can get hurt. In the worst of circumstances, the injuries are physical as well as psychological. But if there is no compelling evidence that mail-order brides are in greater danger than anyone else, should Congress be regulating the industry with a heavy hand?

ON THE LAST WEEKEND OF EVERY MONTH, Natasha Spivack hosts a Saturday Club Social, as she likes to call her meet-your-mate gatherings in Maryland. On the way to the party, Petrenko tried to seem casual about the event ahead. She was going for the fun of it, she said in her broken English. She'd made a decent living as a pharmacist in the Ukraine and her son missed his friends at home. If she met someone, great; if not, she'd go back. But she was lonely, she added, and men in the Ukraine weren't interested in dating a 34-year-old divorcée with a son.

Petrenko was a hit at the social and she knew it. One client offered to let her stay at his home so that she could get away from the dogs. Another man asked Spivack to introduce him to the "woman in pink."

Spivack, who is 51, revels in arranging and rearranging unhappy singles into pairs. She is blonde and statuesque, but her most striking feature is a mind that constantly tucks away information for later use. That talent was on display at the party as she circulated among her male clients to help them meet the female guests. Spivack seemed to float above the excitement. She stopped to talk to Craig Shipp, a 45-year-old software engineer who brought his computer along so that he could waylay guests with pictures of the 21-year-old baryshnia—"young lady," in Russian—whom he'd met on a recent trip to Moscow. "What caught your eye?" someone asked him. Shipp answered, "Gentleness and innocence."

Spivack's presence calmed Chris Malcheski, a balding divorcé who had flown in from Denver just for the party. "It's very comfortable here," said Malcheski, wearing blue jeans and blinding white sneakers. "Send me to a club and it's not going to be like this. Women will be like, 'Buzz off!'"

There are at least 200 matchmaking agencies in the United States that broker marriages between American men and foreign women, arranging up to 6,000 unions a year. (No broker appears to offer parallel services to American women.) Malcheski had tried several of the agencies and had corresponded with 63 women. They had all stopped writing to him. So he paid the $1,850 cost of membership with Encounters, which guarantees a man a wife within a year or his money back. (Foreign women sign up with the agency for free.) The male clients get access to the agency's online database, mostly made up of canned details about the women, whom Encounters representatives interview in Moscow, Kiev, and Yaroslavl, a smaller Russian city. Searches can be customized by age, weight, and hair color. The women have to include photos and state their profession and whether they have children. Encounters features hundreds of women, as opposed to the thousands available through bigger companies like A Foreign Affair and Cherry Blossoms. But Spivack has a distinct advantage over her competitors: herself.

Born in Moscow, Spivack attended Moscow University in the 1970s, learning Arabic and graduating with a degree in Middle Eastern studies. Spivack worked as a translator for an academy affiliated with the Communist Party and enjoyed the privileges the job gave her until she met Boris Yudzon, a Jewish dissident. She was blown away, she said, by his "high intellect." The wedding took place three months later and the marriage, Spivack said, "was like from heaven." She began to view communism through the filter of her dissident husband's skepticism, and soon was eager to move to the United States.

A decade and two sons later, in 1985, she got her wish and the family settled in Maryland. Spivack landed a job teaching Russian at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Yudzon began working for the local power company. After a year and a half, they moved into a three-bedroom, split-level house; the dream they had imagined was beginning to unfold. A month later, Boris hit an icy patch on a two-lane road as he drove to work. His car spun out of control, ramming into a telephone pole. The accident proved fatal.

Since she lost Yudzon, Spivack has tried to engineer happy endings, starting with her own. She joined the singles scene, answering personal ads and becoming a member of Great Expectations, a precursor to Match.com. She was methodical in her search for a mate and, in 1991, found a Jewish economist named Berel Spivack who resembled her late husband. She married him in the synagogue that had performed the burial rituals for Yudzon.

The bride wanted to start a business, and it seemed to her that she had expertise in two areas: language and love. She decided on a dating service in lieu of a language school and, with her husband, founded Encounters in 1993. At first, she continued to teach at Johns Hopkins, but she was distracted by thoughts of her male clients. "They were suffering from loneliness," she said. "Their wives had left them, they lost all skills to date, tried bars, and came home to an empty house." She also felt for her countrywomen. As Spivack put it, they were "doomed never to have a family" if they were not married by 25—unless they had her help.

But marriage is not a cure-all, as Spivack learned from her second one. "The more I was in charge, the more money I made, the less happy he became," she said. Berel Spivack saw it differently; he said he soon suspected that she was "playing financial games" to enrich herself at the expense of their joint account. In any case, talking about their differences escalated into screaming. According to Natasha, her husband took out his frustration on her younger son, Michael, then 14. In 1997, during a party that Spivack threw to celebrate the engagement of the 100th couple who had met through Encounters, Berel got into a fight with Michael and banged the teenager's head on a bathroom floor. "In Russia, domestic violence is not ever admitted as a crime," said Spivack. "I didn't know where to go, what to do."

The experience didn't give Spivack pause about her business, however—or tilt her sympathies toward the women she helps usher from the former Soviet republics to the Washington, D.C., area. The clients who pay the fees at Encounters are the men, and Spivack believes that her customers are usually right. That attitude has landed her in legal trouble.

In April 2002, in the first lawsuit of its kind, a mail-order bride named Nataliya Fox sued Spivack for her part in a grievously bad match. Fox came to America in much the same circumstances as Elena Petrenko. She had a K-1 visa to marry a Virginian who was an Encounters client. Before long, the bloom was off their relationship, and so was the engagement. The erstwhile fiancé passed Fox along to Spivack, who comforted the upset woman at her office, promising her that she knew another just-the-right-man. "I thought, I have this James Fox and he was basically hurting," recalled Spivack. "Who if not him could make her feel better?" The two singles met at a shopping mall and married within the month.

About two years later, according to Nataliya, James attacked her while she breastfed their newborn daughter. Nataliya was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the attending physician noted contusions and swelling on her face and body as well as a bite mark on her hand. "During the course of my examination of Ms. Fox, a man identifying himself as Ms. Fox's husband made repeated and threatening phone calls to the emergency department," the physician stated in a deposition.

Nataliya's suit charges Encounters with failing to do a meaningful background check of James, whom a former fiancée accuses of nearly strangling her to death. (He is now married to another mail-order bride.) Encounters also failed to tell Nataliya about her right to bring her own immigration petition and so broke the 1996 law written to protect battered foreign wives, the suit says.

As Nataliya tells it, she told Spivack that James hit her months before the attack. Spivack didn't really believe Nataliya: "I felt she was manipulating the situation to gain my sympathy." The broker was inclined to trust James, who said it was "absolutely not true" that he ever hurt Nataliya, accusing her of faking her injuries because she was "on shaky ground with her immigration status." Spivack encouraged Nataliya to work out her troubles with her husband and warned her that she would likely be deported if she did not remain with him.

Nataliya's story is an argument for regulating the mail-order bride trade more strictly. The Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia legal advocacy group for immigrant women, pushed for the new bill that would tighten government oversight. The organization has helped a dozen Eastern European brides who said they'd been abused. "We began to ask questions about their experience working with these agencies," said Layli Miller-Muro, the executive director of the center, which is named after a 19th-century Persian feminist. "Many men were on to their third or fourth mail-order brides."

Advocates say that the agencies have a responsibility to tell the foreign women more about such men. "Women expect that this kind of vetting occurs before they are contacted," said Suzanne Jackson, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "They believe that the agencies know something about the men who use the services and have made sure they're not serial murderers."

But is it a broker's job to run a background check on a man simply because he wants to meet a foreign mate? The legislation before Congress exempts matchmaking services like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals because these companies charge the same rates to men and women and to natives and foreigners. In light of the financial incentive that mail-order brokers have to side with their male clients, it makes sense to treat brokers differently by requiring them to tell foreign brides about their immigration rights. However, it seems premature to impose background checks without more proof that the men who go to brokers to meet foreign women—the men at Spivack's socials—are more dangerous than men at any other singles party. Mail-order brides are adults who can only hope for the best and guard against the worst. They should proceed, as others do, at their own risk.

THE GUESTS AT THE HALLOWEEN SOCIAL, which Encounters held at a client's home, were primed for an announcement. Spivack had tipped them off in an e-mail, saying that "for at least two people" the September social had "made a big difference." Petrenko arrived three hours into the party in a clinging black pants outfit and siren-red lipstick. Even without a costume, she looked like Cat Woman. Following close behind her, in a red flannel shirt was a broad-shouldered man named Thomas, who asked that his last name not be used.

Thomas had been too shy to approach Petrenko in September, but she had looked familiar to him then. When he got home from the party, he'd checked Encounters' database and, sure enough, the woman in pink was the same one he'd noticed and written to more than a year before. A brief correspondence followed, and Thomas grew to like Petrenko. But after a few months, her letters stopped, though Petrenko says now that while she got e-mails from many men, Thomas's were the only ones she saved.

By his own account, Thomas is a cautious man. He fought in the first Gulf War and recently retired from the Army. He is 50, has been divorced for several years, and has three children. Before joining Encounters four years ago, he spent six months researching matchmaking agencies because he'd decided that he was "no longer interested in playing games to meet people."

After the September social, Thomas called Spivack and asked for Petrenko's number. He invited her and her son to the zoo. Two weeks later at the October social, he left Petrenko's side just to fetch her a plate of food and a cup of coffee, after asking her slowly what she wanted to drink so that she had no trouble understanding.

Thomas, it seemed, had made an uncharacteristic snap decision. "This is fast, but 90 days is short," he said, referring to the length of a K-1 fiancée visa. "So what do you do? Do you hurry up and get married because you're not sure but this feels right?"

Thomas was ready when Spivack shepherded her guests into the living room and asked for the crowd's attention. She made a brief introduction and then gave him the floor. He announced that he had asked Petrenko, "this wonderful lady," to marry him. A Russian guest gasped and shrieked, "Oh, my God!" The guests began chanting "Gor'ko, Gor'ko," which means bitter in Russian but roughly translates to clinking your glass. Petrenko laughed and kissed Thomas. For better or worse, she had found him, her American groom.


Nadya Labi is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.

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