House bill would protect 'mail-order brides'
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
Couples brought together by the booming international matchmaking trade can find unpleasant surprises as well as love, prompting women's rights advocates to seek regulation of such businesses in Hawai'i.
These advocates say a bill scheduled for a legislative hearing today represents a first step toward protecting "mail-order brides" who sign up with these agencies and who may find themselves in abusive situations later.
The measure, House Bill 135, will be heard before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs at 9 a.m. today in State Capitol Conference Room 229. The bill would give the foreign client of a matchmaking service access to marital and criminal histories of a prospective spouse who is a Hawai'i resident.
The bill would compel Hawai'i-based companies to inform the foreign client that the information is available on request and to supply it, in the client's language, when it is requested. No further assistance in bringing the prospective couple together could be given until the resident client provides the information to the foreign client.
The measure has drawn supportive testimony from the Hawai'i State Commission on the Status of Women, the immigrant legal services agency Na Loio, Hawai'i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other groups and individuals.
Na Loio attorney Calleen Ching represents immigrants who say they have been abused by their spouses here. Over the past 18 months, Na Loio has logged about 145 calls concerning abuse; Ching estimates that one-fourth of the cases involve people who met their spouses through a matchmaking service.
"Often, they want to know if they can stay in the U.S. if they leave their abusive husbands," Ching said.
State Rep. Marilyn Lee, D-38th (Mililani, Mililani Mauka), introduced the bill after meeting with lawmakers in Washington state who sponsored a similar law arising from cases of murder and servitude involving mail-order brides, and after attending the University of Hawai'i-sponsored Human Trafficking Conference in November
Lee acknowledged that it's unknown how many sad stories exist. "But in my opinion we're a state that's really at risk for it, because of our east-west location, and because the society is protective of privacy and so many of these things won't be known," she said.
According to a 1999 study released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of matchmaking organizations in the nation has topped 200. They bring together an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 couples annually who marry and petition for immigration of the female spouse, according to the study.
Some involved in the business feel the matchmaking industry gets a bad rap. Annie Tse manages Sunshine International, a company based in Kona that sells an $80 magazine every three months, each listing more than 300 Asian women willing to correspond with men overseas.
Tse said the bill unfairly targets companies doing business internationally because domestically arranged correspondences can go sour, too.
"There's so much misconception," she said. "We do see a lot of happy marriages."
Reach Vicki Viotti at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8053.