By Laura Bassett / Huffington Post
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.