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Law to protect 'mail-order brides' but agencies offering Czech spouses aren't much concerned


By Brandon Swanson
Staff Writer, The Prague Post

February 15, 2006 issue

A new law in the United States aimed at regulating international marriage agencies could hamper those operating in the Czech Republic, slowing down a market that agents say has been booming here in recent years.

That is, if agencies obey it; some hint they may not.

U.S. President George W. Bush signed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act Jan. 5, which starting next month will place heavy restrictions on how so-called mail-order bride agencies do business with American clients.

It is hard to say how many agencies — legitimate or otherwise — are operating in this country. The Prague Post found six in Prague alone, but only three agreed to talk.

The new law comes in response to several highly publicized crimes against mail-order brides in the United States in recent years — most notably the 2000 murder of Anastasia King, a 20-year-old Kyrgyzstani bride killed by her abusive husband near Seattle after she threatened to divorce him.

The new regulations apply to all marriage agencies that do business with U.S. clients, regardless of whether they are based there.

American men will soon have to provide agencies with a sex offender background check, as well as criminal and marital questionnaires. The agencies will then have to translate those documents into the native language of every potential bride a man wants to contact before they can allow contact.

"That's a lot of work," says Gary Bala, an immigration lawyer in the United States. "One has to keep in mind the nature of this industry for the broker. They have signed up hundreds, or thousands, or even hundred of thousands of women. If you multiply that out, it's a commercially prohibitive task."

Agency owners, often known as brokers, could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 (476,200 Kč) for each offense in U.S. Federal Court if they violate the law.

But the new regulations, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will oversee, seem murky on several key points, not least of which is how local authorities will figure in their enforcement.

Buy-a-bride

Bala said that when the law takes effect March 7, it would likely drive many agencies out of business and significantly alter how the rest operate with U.S. clients.

As many as 6,000 American men find brides through international marriage brokers each year, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It estimates that between 100,000 and 150,000 women are currently advertising themselves in such agencies, the majority of whom are from Russia, former Soviet republics and Southeast Asia.

Marriage brokers say the industry has been booming in the Czech Republic over the past few years.

"Since the Czech Republic has gone into the European Union, things have gotten better for our company," says Joe Weiner, founder and owner of Eastern Europe Women, an agency that offers Czech women.

There are several thousand Czech women listed on his Web site alone.

It's difficult to determine how much money the industry is worth here and worldwide: Agencies in the Czech Republic are quiet about how much money they make, and there are no reliable global estimates.

But agencies here charge as much as $5,000 for date packages with multiple Czech women.

Weiner has a list of reasons why the Czech mail-order bride market has improved in recent years.

"No visas are needed for Czech and Slovak ladies in Western Europe," he says. "The Czech Republic is embracing the West even more. More women are speaking English and the divorce rate in the Czech Republic is 63 percent."

A question of rights

The new regulations are the first legislative attempt to limit communication between potentially dangerous men and prospective brides.

"The whole justification for this law is protection from abuse for immigrant women," Bala says. "It's an intrusion of privacy, but is it justified? That is the question."

The law is creating controversy.

Bala says he has already heard from at least a half-dozen brokers and clients of brokers in the United States who are ready to challenge it as soon as it goes into effect. He said they could have a case that the law violates free speech and equal rights.

"If I am a U.S. gentleman citizen and I want to communicate with a lady abroad, this law says that I have to cough up all of these documents just to say, 'hi,' " he says.

"Whereas, if I decide to marry a local lady, I don't have to cough up any documentation. Those two sets of individuals are not equal."

Secrets

Olga Slámová, a 37-year-old prospective Czech bride, says she assumed that agencies already screened their clients to make sure they were not dangerous.

"That was one of the reasons why I joined an agency and did not try to meet someone through the public server," she says.

Brokers that operate in the Czech Republic say they are already safe, and are not worried about the law.

Simon Harris, the British founder and financial backer of Romantic Future, an agency in Prague, says his company does not focus on U.S. clientele, but it hopes to enter that market unless the law makes it untenable.

"There's no way we are going to try to break the law," he says. "If the countries have to be wiped out of our market, then fine."

Harris says he doesn't see the law affecting how other brokers work.

"This is a multi-, multimillion-pound operation, which is being run by unscrupulous criminals," he says. "You can take any business like this and you can't just shut it down by passing a bill. It's not going to happen."

Weiner says that the law will in no way affect the way Eastern Europe Women does business. When asked why he was unconcerned when other agencies were promising legal action, he says, "Perhaps their legal setup is different than mine."

When asked how Hand n Hand's legal setup differed from other agencies, Weiner was equally concise.

"That is my secret," he said.

Brandon Swanson can be reached at bswanson@praguepost.com
   

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