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This article was originally published on December 11, 2008.

The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) is a groundbreaking federal law that was enacted in January 2006 as part of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act.

IMBRA regulates the fast-growing international marriage broker (IMB) industry (commonly referred to as “mail-order bride” agencies), provides critical information to foreign fiancé(e)s and spouses of US citizens about their American partners’ criminal histories, informs them of their legal rights and of resources available to them if they are abused, and makes changes in the foreign fiancé(e) and spouse visa application process to prevent abuse and exploitation by serial predators.

Tahirih Justice Center led the national coalition that drafted and advocated for the passage of IMBRA. Tahirih is proud of its instrumental role in making IMBRA a reality but recognizes that there is much work ahead to translate the law into meaningful and effective protections for foreign brides coming to the United States. Two recent developments underscore these challenges and reinforce the critical need for Tahirih’s continued leadership.

DHS Releases Draft Domestic Violence Rights Pamphlet

In July 2008, more than two years after the statutorily required deadline, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) finally released a draft of a crucial IMBRA-mandated pamphlet advising foreign fiancé(e)s and spouses about the rights and resources available to immigrant victims of violence in the United States. IMBRA recognized through this important provision that many foreign fiancé(e)s and spouses do not have basic information that could help them escape abuse, such as knowing to dial 9-1-1, obtain a protective order, or seek legal or social services assistance. DHS asked the public to submit comments on the pamphlet by September 19, 2008. (IMBRA in fact required DHS to consult in preparing the pamphlet with nonprofit agencies with expertise on the legal rights of immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes.) Tahirih mobilized advocates in this community and others with specialized insights to weigh in and suggest how to make the pamphlet more effective in helping potential victims avoid or escape abuse.

Tahirih also collaborated with the Immigrant Women Program at Legal Momentum and pro bono attorneys at the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP to file detailed joint comments (view exhibits: A, B, C-E), which even included proposed alternate pamphlet language. Among the significant areas for improvement that Tahirih noted, the pamphlet needs to provide more comprehensive information regarding what legal rights and resources are available, in simple, clear language that is user-friendly and understandable to non-lawyers. The dozens of colleagues (organizations and individuals) that Tahirih also rallied to submit comments included the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (in a sign-on letter from 17 organizations), the Polaris Project, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Texas Council on Family Violence, Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Law Center (HI), Sanctuary for Families Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services (NY), and The Advocates for Human Rights (MN). These organizations also raised additional concerns, including the pamphlet’s complete silence regarding the risk of human trafficking and resources for such victims, and the pamphlet’s lack of culturally sensitive language.

GAO Issues Report on IMBRA Implementation Gaps

Then, in August 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report citing widespread gaps in federal agencies’ implementation and enforcement of IMBRA. The draft information pamphlet, for example, while certainly a welcome development, was long overdue—it was to have been released in final form, translated and distributed by May 2006. Among other disturbing failures to implement key IMBRA requirements, the GAO found that:

  • The Department of State (DOS) has not been providing foreign fiancé(e)s/spouses with a copy of their American sponsors’ visa applications, which contain important IMBRA-mandated disclosures about criminal convictions. The GAO also discovered that it was not until March 2008—more than two years after IMBRA’s enactment—that DOS finally issued formal guidance to consular officers processing fiancé(e)/spouse visas overseas about all the vital disclosures they are required to make under IMBRA.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has failed to set up IMBRA-required procedures to prevent serial predators from sponsoring visas for multiple foreign fiancé(e)s. Prior to IMBRA, there was no limit on the number of visas applications that could be submitted to sponsor foreign fiancé(e)s, and no tracking mechanism to prevent even simultaneous sponsorship applications. Foreign spouses were also not advised about how many times before their American spouse may have sponsored such visas. IMBRA sought to close this loophole to prevent serial predators from “churning through” a succession of foreign brides.
  • DOS, DHS, and the Department of Justice have not yet coordinated to determine which agency will be responsible for investigating and prosecuting IMBs who commit civil or criminal violations of obligations imposed on the industry by IMBRA. This last failure has left IMBRA essentially unenforced, nearly three years after its enactment.

Tahirih issued a press release to respond to the GAO report and is redoubling efforts to collaborate with Congressional allies, coalition colleagues, and others to see that these alarming gaps in IMBRA’s implementation and enforcement are addressed.

Tahirih is grateful for all the hard work invested thus far by so many of the dedicated organizations that have made protecting immigrant women and girls from abuse a top priority, and by the dedicated staff at federal agencies that have taken the lead in accomplishing the first steps in IMBRA’s implementation. The non-profit looks forward to continuing to work with partner organizations and agencies to reach the law’s full potential in protecting vulnerable foreign brides and their children#&8212;thousands of whom may come to the United States each year through the IMB industry#&8212;from preventable abuse and exploitation.