Are Republicans Exploiting Victims of Marriage Fraud to Attack Immigrants?

In July of 2000, Nataliya Fox, a Ukrainian immigrant in Northern Virginia, moved into a shelter for domestic violence victims. Her American husband had beaten her while she was breastfeeding their baby and had threatened to murder her while holding a gun to her head. She had arrived in the Emergency Room with bruises and contusions on her face and body and a bite mark on her hand.

It was a pattern that had begun soon after her wedding, which was arranged through Encounters International, an international matchmaking service based in Maryland. Fox was a mail order bride. When her husband’s violence began, according to court documents, she had informed Natasha Spivack, the founder of the matchmaking agency. But Spivack never informed her of her rights under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), instead suggesting that Fox “do what he says” and telling her she would be deported if she left her husband.

“When Nataliya would complain to them, instead of bringing help, they would advise her how to be a better wife,” Layli Miller-Muro, the founder of the Tahirih Justice Center, which took Fox as a client, told me. Fox was the second Russian bride brokered through Encounters International who Fox’s husband had abused. “They were knowingly carrying a predatory abuser of women,” Miller-Muro said.

Abusive spouses of immigrants often refuse to sponsor their partners’ work authorization and citizenship applications, in order to keep them trapped, legally and financially, in an unwanted marriage. VAWA allows undocumented victims of domestic abuse to “self-petition” for protected immigration status and a green card. Moreover, it allows them to do so without informing their abusers, who might retaliate against them violently were they to find out. Fox was kept in the dark about these rights. Two years later, in a case that made headlines nationwide, she sued Encounters International, and was awarded more than $400,000.

In 2013, VAWA was due for reauthorization by Congress. A lobbying group called SAVE, which purported to advocate against false allegations of sexual assault and domestic abuse, was making the rounds on Capitol Hill. SAVE’s representatives explained to Congress members that the confidential self-petition language in VAWA opened the floodgates for “immigration-related marriage fraud.” SAVE warned that the provision encouraged immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens to make false allegations of abuse when their partners sought to divorce them, in order to obtain a police report that they could use to file for an expedited green card through the self-petition process.

“What was proposed was that the abuser would be notified if the spouse filed for a self-petition,” said Rosie Hidalgo, the public policy director of La Casa de Esperanza, a national domestic violence prevention group. “This would significantly undermine the safety of victims and could be life-threatening. Additionally, the abuser would have the opportunity to contradict what the victim said and then the victim would not only be denied the self-petition but could also be charged with material misrepresentation.”

SAVE’s argument found eager mouthpieces among Republicans in the House and Senate. Senator Chuck Grassley warned that the law would be “manipulated as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreign con artists and criminals.” Representative Lamar Smith described “(i)mmigrants who perpetrate fraud in order to get visas or U.S. citizenship.”

As it turned out, the Huffington Post revealed, SAVE was the brainchild of Natasha Spivack. Spivack and Encounters International had good reason to fear VAWA’s self-petition provision: one of the selling points of the service was its low divorce rate. Educating abused foreign brides on legal protections that would allow them to safely exit their marriages ran counter to the company’s business interests. (Spivack denies that this motivated her to found SAVE. “If anything I will profit from the divorce because people will come back to me the second time,” she told me. “I’m neutral.”)

Spivack remains convinced that false allegations of abuse on the part of non-citizens toward their citizen spouses are rampant. “If the relationship doesn’t work for whatever reason,” Spivack said, “and the man realizes it was a mistake and wants a divorce, as soon as he pronounces that, the woman claims abuse. A man doesn’t know that she has this secret weapon.”

“The VAWA provisions encourages women to employ this weapon against American men, or women,” she continued.

Spivack’s efforts, and those of Senator Grassley, ultimately failed. VAWA was reauthorized, with the confidential self-petition provision in place. But today, the specter of “immigration-related marriage fraud” is beginning to appear once more in the lexicon of Republican politicians.

In March, Senator Chuck Grassley convened a Judiciary Committee hearing on the ostensible threat. In his prepared remarks, Grassley cited unnamed “recent reports” that allegedly described a growing number of “foreign nationals who defraud American citizens to enter our country and receive a green card,” using marriage proposals as their weapon.

Two victims of immigration-related marriage fraud testified at the hearing. One was Elena Maria Lopez, a writer who lives in New Jersey. Lopez’s ex-husband, an immigrant from Holland, told her after two years of marriage that his love for her was a lie, and then abused her and threatened her life when she withdrew her sponsorship for his U.S. citizenship. At one point, he laughed as he fired blanks at her with a rifle.

Lopez’s experience as a victim of domestic abuse was horrific. Much of her story is not unlike those of undocumented domestic violence survivors who owe their survival to the confidential self-petitioning provision afforded by VAWA. But rather than protect that provision, Lopez would like to see it replaced by one that gives alleged abusers the opportunity to contest the accusations. Lopez told me that she’s been lobbying House and Senate offices on the issue for years. In January, she wrote a post in The Daily Caller, describing how she “begged Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to vote against” the reauthorization of the law in 2013, which he did, famously.

“In no other official proceeding can I claim a crime happened, provide no evidence, demand no investigation, bar additional evidence from being reviewed, and still get the ultimate benefit: a path to U.S. citizenship,” Lopez said. “It is so easy to get a domestic violence green card that actual abusers have gotten them time and time again.”

Miller-Muro disagrees with this account of the prevalence of marriage fraud. The processing center in Vermont that evaluates claims of abuse is “highly trained” she told me. “They’re tough. They sent back cases all the time.”

“The system works,” she continued. “Even where there is fraud, we have a really tough immigration system that weeds it out. It’s not a problem because it gets caught.” In Grassley’s hearing, a State Department official testified that the rate of improper use of “fiancée visas” was about two percent.

The other witness at the hearing was Jamal Hussain, a California cardiologist who recounted how his Pakistani fiancée abandoned her arranged engagement to him and falsely accused him of domestic abuse in order to secure her legal residency status. Like Lopez, he believes this fraud is widespread. “In many instances false stories of domestic violence are concocted by the shelters to justify immigration eligibility for the scammers despite evidence to the contrary presented by American citizens,” Hussain told me by Facebook Messenger.

Hussain is an active member of the Facebook group of an organization called Victims of Immigration Fraud (VOIF), which claims to fight for “those that have been victimized by deceptive foreign spouses.” The description on VOIF’s Facebook page claims that the organization “is not a group that is anti-women or anti-immigrant” and that its aim “is not to get VAWA overturned.” But on his public Facebook page, Dave Root, VOIF’s “Former Congress Liaison” and its most prolific poster, has cheered Attorney General Jeff Sessions as an “anti-immigration czar” who will “crack down on the misnamed ‘Office On Violence Against Women,’ a $600 million slush fund for leftist women advocates.” (The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women is the agency tasked with implementing and enforcing the provisions under VAWA.)

Root once ran a now inactive website called online-dating-rights.com. The site was dedicated to opposing the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA), a 2005 law that Miller-Muro and the Tahirih Justice Center lobbied for. IMBRA, which is part of VAWA, mandates background checks for customers of mail order bride services like Encounters International, in order to protect foreign brides from violence and human trafficking. Online-dating-rights.com, which has articles with titles such as “Don’t Marry American Feminist Women,” was one of several sites that were used at the time that IMBRA was being debated as platforms to attack Miller-Muro and threaten her family. The threats became serious enough to warrant an FBI investigation and a grand jury indictment against the sites’ owners. All of that took place more than a decade ago, but as recently as last month, on Facebook, Root referred to the “un American Pro illegal loving Tahirih Justice Center” and called its employees “fat whiny pigs.” (Root did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Another regular poster to the VOIF Facebook page is Ruthie Hendrycks, a Tea Party leader in Minnesota who hosts an anti-immigrant radio show, on which Root has appeared as a guest. Hendrycks has called for Arizona’s SB 1070 to be imported into her state. On her Facebook page, responding to an article on undocumented immigrants engaged in a hunger strike, Hendrycks suggests that immigration authorities “deport and let em starve while they are waiting for the buses.”

Unlike Root and Hendrycks, Lopez, who describes herself as an “independent Democrat,” does not take a broader position on immigration. Nor does she sympathize with the men’s rights agenda of websites like online-dating-rights.com. “I call out anybody who says anything anti-immigrant or anti-female,” she told me. “I’m a feminist. I believe in the right not to be killed or scammed by my husband.”

In response to the nativist postings by other activists, she said, “I’m a biracial Latina that was defrauded by a white, Dutch national. This isn’t about race, ethnicity or gender. It’s about fraud.” She told me that VOIF is only one of numerous groups lobbying on the issue of immigration-related marriage fraud, and not the most important of them.

Grace Huang, policy director at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, was the only witness at Grassley’s hearing who was there to defend the confidential self-petition language in VAWA. She believes that the issue of marriage fraud is a credible one. But she’s concerned that in their zeal to protect a very small number of its victims, politicians risk putting the far larger number of real undocumented victims of domestic violence in danger of retaliation by their abusers.

“When there is fraud and abuse, system resources intended for legitimate victims are taken up by those who don’t merit them, which means fewer resources are available for those who need the most help,” she emailed me. “In examining changes to the immigration process, however, we are deeply concerned that critical protections for immigrant victims will be undermined by creating overly burdensome processes and barriers that the most isolated and vulnerable victims will not be able to overcome.”

Lopez insists that as a domestic violence survivor herself, she sympathizes with the threats facing undocumented victims of abuse, who the confidential self-petition is designed to protect. “My mother ran the county domestic violence shelter,” she said. “So I understand the importance of protecting men and women who are in harm’s way from their former spouses.”

Having failed as a Senator to repeal VAWA as Lopez had urged him to, today, as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions is in a position to deliver on Lopez’s wish to pursue suspected perpetrators of marriage fraud. On April 11, in a pugnacious speech in Nogales, Arizona to Customs and Border Protection officials in which he practically declared war on “criminal aliens,” Sessions named fraudulent green card marriages among a list of mostly non-violent crimes that DHS will now prosecute as felonies.

“This is a new era,” Sessions inveighed, darkly and triumphantly. “This is the Trump era.”