By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (April 1, 2008) - In an effort to prevent domestic violence and close a loophole in federal law, Maryland lawmakers want criminal background checks available on men who pay to meet mail-order or Internet brides through marriage brokers.
A federal law, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, was enacted in 2006 and requires international marriage brokers to check clients against sex offender registries. But marital history and other criminal records do not have to be checked by the brokers.
The federal law only requires that brokers ask their American clients, who are overwhelmingly men, about marital history and criminal records, according to the sponsors of the state bill.
"He can lie," said Natasha Spivack of Encounters International, a Maryland broker with a database of more than 450 Russian women. "[There's no] requirement that whatever he says has to be doubted and checked."
The proposed Maryland law aims to correct this by requiring criminal background checks if a broker's recruits, usually women from Russia, Latin America or other foreign countries, request them.
Both the federal law and proposed state law require brokers to provide information to foreign women on their rights regarding immigration, domestic violence assistance and emergency services, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.
Sometimes women are not aware of their rights and fear that reporting domestic violence can result in deportation, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, which has advocated on behalf of abused foreign brides.
The federal Violence Against Women Act allows immigrant spouses to self-petition for residency under some circumstances if they have been abused.
The Maryland bill requires informational materials to be translated into the woman's native language at the broker's expense, whereas federal law requires only 15 languages, according to Legislative Services. Penalties under the state law would also be more severe.
A priority for the Women Legislators of Maryland, House and Senate versions of the bill aim to "lay the groundwork" for passage either this session or next year, said Delegate Adelaide Eckardt, R-Dorchester, the group's president.
"Either way, I don't think we lose," she said. "We're still educating."
The bills apply to any for-profit international marriage broker doing business with a Maryland resident. Religious and not-for-profit brokers are exempt.
Spivack, a Russian native, said providing women with in-depth legal information can make it easier for them to commit immigration fraud by falsely accusing their husbands of domestic violence. After a divorce, the women can sometimes self-petition for permanent residency.
"I know these laws are heavily misused," she said.
Spivack said she tries to counsel the clients and recruits who use her service to prevent fraud.
Encounters International was the target of a 2004 lawsuit by a Ukrainian woman who claimed she was abused by her spouse. She successfully sued Spivack's company for failing to screen its male clients.
Spivack maintains the lawsuit was based on false charges, and said she's not against laws protecting abused women if they have protections in place for the accused as well.
"I am against giving carte blanche to women just because they may be abused," she said.