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This article was originally published on December 18, 2014.

Almost a decade has elapsed since Congress passed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA), but U.S. agencies have yet to fully implement and enforce the federal law to safeguard so-called “mail-order” brides from abuse and exploitation, according to an independent report issued last week.

The detailed report, issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on Dec. 10, found multiple shortcomings in implementation and enforcement of IMBRA, which Congress passed in 2005 and strengthened through amendments in 2013. To fully implement IMBRA, the report recommended, among other measures, that U.S. agencies must:

  • Revise the fiancé(e)/spouse visa petition form to gather all the information that IMBRA requires petitioners to disclose, such as whether petitioners have permanent protective orders against them;
  • Establish better electronic tracking mechanisms to ensure that petitioners who have filed prior visa petitions for fiancé(e) or spouses to come to the U.S. are accurately flagged as potentially triggering IMBRA’s multiple filer bar, and further scrutinized for any violent criminal history before granting waivers;
  • Better document compliance with IMBRA and clarify compliance guidance for agency staff;
  • Train U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Department of Justice (DOJ), and State Department (DOS) officers on IMBRA requirements

IMBRA is designed to protect so-called “mail-order brides” from violent abuse and exploitation by men they meet through international marriage brokers, or IMBs (entities that charges fees for matchmaking services between U.S. citizens/residents and foreign nationals). With a broad coalition of over 200 agencies and advocates around the country and bipartisan champions in Congress, Tahirih drafted the bill and marshalled it to passage in 2005 and to amendment in 2013.

IMBRA was motivated by alarming evidence of a growing nationwide trend of abuse and exploitation of foreign women who meet American husbands through international marriage brokers (IMBs or so-called “mail-order bride agencies). In an effort to prevent future tragedies, IMBRA imposed certain regulations on IMBs and made some changes to the process by which an American citizen petitions to sponsor a foreign fiancé(e) or spouse visa. Among other things, IMBRA established common-sense disclosures to provide immigrating foreign fiancé(e)s/spouses with information about whether their American fiancé(e)s/spouses have violent criminal histories, and to advise them about their legal rights and resources available to them in the United States if they are abused.

A 1999 government-commissioned report concluded that there was “considerable” potential for abuse in marriages arranged by IMBs and “numerous opportunities for exploitation.” It also indicated that “mail-order brides may become victims of international trafficking in women and girls” (See Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Director of Violence Against Women Office at the Department of Justice, International Matchmaking Organizations: A Report to Congress). These conclusions are unfortunately echoed in the experience of domestic violence service providers, law enforcement, and others across the country from whom Tahirih learned about hundreds of “mail-order bride” abuse cases over the course of its legislative campaign to pass IMBRA.

“Tahirih is proud of our instrumental role in enacting IMBRA, but until it is fully implemented and enforced, foreign brides coming to the United States will remain vulnerable to predators who use the international marriage broker industry to find new, unsuspecting victims,” said Archi Pyati, Director of Public Policy at Tahirih.

Alarmed by lack of IMBRA compliance, Tahirih recently advocated for key amendments to strengthen and enforce IMBRA. Congress enacted the amendments through the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. The amendments included a mandate that the U.S. Attorney General designate a DOJ office to enforce IMBRA and report back to Congress on how investigations and prosecutions of IMBs or their clients who violate IMBRA would be handled.

Tahirih notes with appreciation that in July 2013 DOJ reported to Congress on its efforts, and that in October 2014 DOJ broadly distributed to state and local law enforcement and to domestic violence advocates nationwide an electronic bulletin to advise the field about IMBRA and to provide a point of contact to report potential IMBRA violations. However, we remain concerned that DOJ’s July 2013 report concluded that the agency could not yet even develop a framework for prosecution, nor designate a particular office for enforcement.

Despite the rapid growth of this industry, and clear evidence of IMBRA violations, no IMB has been prosecuted since IMBRA’s enactment. Today, more than 400 IMBs operate United States, marketing women from every corner of the globe to American men. In 2013 alone, an estimated 9,000 to 13,000 so called “mail-order brides” entered the U.S. as a result of IMB introductions.

“Tahirih will continue to fight to fully implement and enforce IMBRA. The law has tremendous potential to protect vulnerable immigrant women and girls from abusers and ensure IMBs don’t prioritize their profits over women’s safety. We hope that U.S. agencies will make its full implementation a priority in 2015—lives depend on it,” Pyati said.