A top official at an anti-domestic violence advocacy group that has been encouraging the House GOP to roll back protections for immigrant victims in the Violence Against Women Act (or VAWA) is the founder of a controversial international matchmaking company, domestic violence workers warned lawmakers on Monday night.
The advocacy group, Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, or SAVE, has been lobbying the House of Representatives to include a "reform to curb VAWA immigration fraud" in its version of the bill. The GOP version of the bill does that by removing confidentiality protections for immigrant victims of abuse and forcing them to tell their alleged abusive husbands that they're applying for protected immigrant status. It also removes an avenue through whih immigrant victims can achieve permanent citizenship.
An official of SAVE has a major financial interest in reducing immigrant protections: Its treasurer, Natasha Spivack, started international "marriage service" Encounters International in 1993 with the aim of arranging marriages between U.S. men and Russian women. "The Woman Of Your Dreams Just May Have A Russian Accent," states the company's website.
One of the Russian brides matched by Encounters International sued the firm, claiming that she was beaten by her American husband, that the company failed to properly screen candidates and neglected to tell her about a law allowing immigrants to escape abusive marriages without fear of automatic deportation. A jury decided in favor of the Russian bride and awarded her $434,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The case was affirmed upon appeal.
Spivack, who is the founder and president of Encounters International, told The Huffington Post that the allegations of violence against her client were false and that she was the victim of immigrant fraud in that situation.
"That was a totally false accusation," she said. "This particular woman abused the system and defrauded the whole system. I was the victim of immigration fraud. And that's how I became involved in SAVE, because at that time there was no movement whatsoever against false accusations of abuse."
Spivack confirmed to HuffPost that she has lobbied as part of SAVE to revise the Violence Against Women Act to address the issue of false accusations of domestic abuse by immigrants. Spivack provided a statement to HuffPost of her testimony at the June 2011 False Accusations Summit about this issue.
Rosie Hidalgo, director of public policy for the anti-domestic violence organization Casa de Esperanza, said she has notified Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee that SAVE had strong connections to Encounters International, and pointed out that there have been no studies documenting immigration fraud on the part of U.S. anti-domestic violence programs.
"It's shocking to me that the people who are advocating for these anti-immigrant provisions are the people who have a monetary interest in not holding batterers accountable and not holding marriage broker agencies accountable," she told HuffPost. "These are the ones reaching out to House Republicans, and Republicans are supporting the policies they're pushing."
Indeed, several House Republicans cited immigration fraud as the reason for rolling back protections for immigrant women in their version of the legislation.
"Fraud and abuse in the U.S. immigration system must be stopped," said Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in the House markup of the bill on Tuesday morning. "Immigrants who perpetuate fraud in order to get visas or U.S. citizenship devalue U.S. immigration laws and hurt legitimate victims who are the intended beneficiaries of the generous programs we have established."
Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), the sponsor of the GOP's version of the legislation, also noted that the revised bill "cracks down on fraud."
Hidalgo said both Smith and Adams ignored her letter about SAVE and its motivations.
"It is a sad day indeed when the majority in the House Judiciary Committee rushes to put in place draconian measures to undermine protections for battered immigrant women without ever having studied whether there is a problem with fraud and without ever consulting with the field, with DHS, or with those who actually work tirelessly to try to protect immigrant victims to make sure that any changes they considered would not further endanger victims," Hidalgo said in an email.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called the bill a "flat-out attack on women" for eliminating the protections for immigrant women.
This story has been updated to include a comment from Natasha Spivack of Encounters International about a client's allegations and to refer to her advocacy work for SAVE. More details about the client's successful lawsuit against Encounters International have also been added.
CORRECTION: This report has updated the title of an advocacy group to be SAVE. Previous versions of this story incorrectly referred to it as SAVE Services.
UPDATE: 9:20 p.m. --
Despite Spivack's claim of being defrauded, the U.S. Court of Appeals found unanimously that her client was abused, that Spivack knew about it, and that Spivack withheld critical information about immigration law that could have protected her. Read the full verdict here. Below are excerpts from the appellate decision:
In May 1999, James Fox began to physically abuse Plaintiff by chasing her into a bedroom closet, pinning her against the wall, screaming loudly in her ear that she is a stupid idiot, and then biting her finger so hard that her finger showed bite and bruise marks for two weeks. Over time the physical abuse escalated. For example, on the evening of December 29, 1999, James Fox threw Plaintiff, then four months pregnant, on the bed, violently grabbed her leg with both hands in his expressed attempt to break it, and hit Plaintiff in the face causing her lip to bleed when she screamed in pain about her leg.
On three separate occasions, once in January 2000, once in March 2000, and once in April 2000, Plaintiff sought Spivack’s counseling and advice with regard to the violent physical and mental abuse that she was suffering at the hands of James Fox. Plaintiff had occasion to be in the presence of Spivack during these times because Plaintiff and James Fox attended the monthly social event that Spivack hosted for EI clients and married couples who met through EI. For example, during the January 2000 social, Plaintiff told Spivack about the evening of December 29, 1999; specifically that James Fox had beaten her and terrorized her while pregnant, leaving her with a busted lip and bruises, and that she was so afraid of him beating her again that once he left the apartment for a while, she fled on foot and spent the entire night in a nearby Wal-Mart. At the April 2000 social, Plaintiff specifically told Spivack that James Fox was becoming increasingly abusive and had chased her with a broken piece of glass, put it on her neck, and then told her he hated her, causing her to be “really scared.” (J.A. 1126).
In response to Plaintiff’s repeated reports of abuse and request for advice, Spivack always minimized the abuse Plaintiff suffered, advising her that it was nothing to worry about. With respect to the December 29th beating specifically, Spivack advised Plaintiff that “‘All Americans--all American men are crazy.’” (J.A. 1123). Spivack continued: “‘Maybe you just listen to him, and do what he says.’” Id. Spivack repeatedly advised Plaintiff that she had only two options, work things out with James Fox or be deported back to the Ukraine. Based upon this advice, Plaintiff remained in the marriage and awaited the birth of her daughter.
On July 6, 2000, approximately three weeks after Plaintiff gave birth to her daughter Sophia, James Fox subjected Plaintiff to a final violent episode. Specifically, James Fox physically and verbally abused Plaintiff for approximately two hours, including threatening to kill her while holding a gun to her head. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff called an ambulance because of severe chest pain. The ambulance took Plaintiff to the local hospital where she was treated by Air Force Lt. Col. Marilyn Perry, M.D. Plaintiff had numerous physical injuries including contusions and swelling on her face; hand marks on her arms (indicating that she was violently grabbed and/or shaken); a human bite to her hand; and contusions on her chest. Dr. Perry -- board certified with substantial experience with domestic abuse -- also testified that it was clear
to her that Plaintiff had been terrorized and was a victim of domestic abuse . . .
The record is undisputed that Spivack knew about the battered spouse waiver during the times that Plaintiff had confided in her about the physical and mental abuse that James Fox inflicted upon her. The record is also undisputed that Spivack, nor any other agent or employee of EI, ever informed Plaintiff about the battered spouse waiver. Notably, at all times relevant to this case, EI was governed by the Mail Order Bride Act (MOBA), 8 U.S.C. § 1375. As part of this 1996 legislation, Congress found that there was a heightened risk of domestic abuse in relationships formed by international matchmaking agencies and that women who used such services are “unaware or ignorant of United States immigration law.” 8 U.S.C. § 1375(a). MOBA required that “[e]ach international matchmaking organization doing business in the United States shall disseminate to recruits, upon recruitment, such . . . information as the [INS] deems appropriate, . . . including information regarding . . . the battered spouse waiver.”4 8 U.S.C. § 1375(b)(1) (emphasis added).
Finally, the record is undisputed that EI’s website featured Plaintiff’s name and likeness throughout the relevant time period, including through trial. Defendants used Plaintiff’s name and likeness to portray her as a happy and satisfied customer even after Defendants had actual knowledge that James Fox physically and mentally abused Plaintiff and that Plaintiff was decidedly not a happy customer. Indeed, Defendants placed a picture of Plaintiff taken when she was either six or seven months pregnant (taken in March or April 2000) on the EI website. It is undisputed that EI never obtained written consent as required by the relevant Virginia statute to place any of these pictures on its website.