Overseas Brides Who Marry US Citizens and Find Themselves in an Abusive Relationship


Cindy Hide:                Welcome to Love, Money & the Law. The subject is overseas brides who marry US citizens, return home and find themselves in an abusive relationship. As dating apps and people are taking more overseas assignments around the world, this is a situation that is becoming more prevalent. My guest today is Kathryn Karam, an immigration attorney in Houston, Texas. And she's here to discuss with us some of the issues that could potentially be problems in this sort of situation. So, welcome Kathryn.

Kathryn Karam:          Thank you for having me.

Cindy Hide:                What I'd like to do is to take a hypothetical situation that is based on very likely scenarios that I know that you've encountered or that I've encountered in my personal law practice. So, let's say a young lady in another country meets someone from the United States online, in this case, and is courted by him. He travels to her home and they either marry abroad or return to the United States on a fiance visa. As soon as they arrive at their home in the United States, the relationship begins to take a dark turn. He offers her a carpet on the floor as a place to live and maybe a small stipend for her meals. She's denied transportation or an ability to learn how to drive. He's verbally and physically abusive and forces her to have sex against her will. This is a scenario, unfortunately, that happens frequently to young ladies who marry men from the United States, who are U.S. citizens, and once they get here, find things to be very different. So, let's break this down in a few parts. First of all, does it make a difference for anyone living in another country, whether they get married in their country or whether they get married in the United States, with respect to having any legal rights in a scenario like this?

Kathryn Karam:          It does not make a difference in terms of whether the marriage will be recognized in immigration law, because whether someone marries overseas or in the United States, if it's legal where it took place, then the marriage is going to be recognized here, unless it's contrary to U.S. law, such as it's a big and miss relationship. So, in the vast majority of situations, it doesn't matter at all where the couple married. For legal purposes, if someone uses a fiance visa and comes to the United States, procedurally they may have some differences in what they do and what they're able to do. Then if they come in any other way, the fiance visa has some particularities to it. In the case of abusive relationships, it may not make a difference. Those procedural changes might not matter for a person who came as a fiancee of someone. And so if a young woman, for example, like your hypo, has come to the United States and encounters this kind of problem or some other kind of abuse, sadly it does happen and it does not matter whether the couple married overseas or in the United States, this person still has recourse that she can seek.

Cindy Hide:                Okay. So, what would be the first thing to do for someone in this situation? I mean, just put yourself in her shoes for a minute. You've been romanced from someone in the United States. This person comes to court you in your own country. Maybe once, twice, three times, whatever the circumstances might be, and lures you back to the United States with the promise of a beautiful life. And as soon as they get here, things are not that way. So, what should she do? The language might be a barrier. She might be afraid that there's retaliation if she does reach out to someone, but typically if someone's just landed, they don't have friends. They don't have a network. There's not family here to support them in any way. So, what would you suggest they do if that is the situation?

Kathryn Karam:          It's really important for someone in this kind of situation to find a way to reach out to local nonprofit organizations that help victims of domestic violence and abuse, because one of the key things a person has to do, especially if they're physically in danger or they're cut off from the outside world by their spouse, is to have a plan to get out of the situation. It can be called an escape plan or an exit plan. It's really important for someone to develop that and most of us don't ever imagine we're going to be in this situation in the first place, so we don't know this, no matter where we are in the world, and then if you add onto that someone's in a different country for the first time or maybe the first time in a long time, it's really difficult. So, having the, the plan to get out is important so that a person can remain safe.

Cindy Hide:                The first step is to know that there are resources to reach out to. There are agencies that can be of assistance and who will also hold your identity or the circumstances in confidence.

Kathryn Karam:          Yes.

Cindy Hide:                All right. And then what about law enforcement? Is it a good idea to dial 911 or do you need an escape plan in place first or just how does that work do you think?

Kathryn Karam:          It can come out different ways depending on the circumstances. I would always tell someone if you're in harms way, yes, call 911. Yes, call the police. Don't allow your spouse to tell you if you call the police, they'll arrest you and you'll just be deported, because the reality is that calling law enforcement and getting law enforcement involved is sometimes very important, not only for a person's safety, but also because later on when we're actually working on an immigration process, that information and those records of what happened can be really key to an immigration case. And so I often hear people tell me, well, my husband told me that if I called the police, they would just arrest me, because I'm here illegally, and so I didn't. And the thing is that there are parts of the United States where law enforcement may try to inquire about your immigration status, but I would not let that be a deterrent to calling law enforcement if you're in danger. And keep in mind that that call and the information that you give law enforcement is likely to be something your immigration attorney is going to need to use. So, we need it to be there, if at all possible.

Cindy Hide:                So, let's emphasize that just because you report does not mean you're going to be deported.

Kathryn Karam:          Right.

Cindy Hide:                Correct?

Kathryn Karam:          That's correct.

Cindy Hide:                Okay. Also, if you find yourself in a situation where sexual services are being used for basically your survival in one way or another.

Kathryn Karam:          If a person ends up in a marriage where they're being forced to provide sexual services to other people, that may very well be sex trafficking and immigration law provides for trafficking victim visas, and people need to understand that. That if you're being forced to provide some kind of sexual services or sexual contact as part of an exchange of something of value, even if it's that your spouse says, I'm trying to build my business and you're gonna entertain my clients and I don't care what you have to say about it. If you don't like it, I'll get you deported, that's not, that's something that is very important for you to be able to tell someone who can help you, especially the attorney who's going to help you with immigration, because that's very significant. It's something that is hard to talk about. It's very painful for people to admit has happened.

Kathryn Karam:          But it's really important for us to know, and there can also be situations where a person finds himself in a marriage where they're simply being forced to have sex against their will with their husband. And I am sure there are places in the world where that would ... There ... It would be considered nothing wrong with that marriage, where there would be ... It would be seen as totally acceptable. That's not the case in the United States. That kind of information, even if you have no proof of it ... I have a lot of people tell me, well I don't have any evidence of this. I just know it happened, so I can't really use it. And I tell them, no, that's not true. In Violence Against Women Act cases, we're allowed to use any credible evidence that we have, even if it's someone's statement. If it's believable and someone believes it, that's important. So, I would also tell people not to worry about whether you could prove that something took place with documentary evidence or photographic evidence or videos. Just be ready to tell someone who can help you about it so that they know. And can determine what they can do to help.

Cindy Hide:                So, let's take this ... The next step. Let's say you're able to prove up that domestic violence along some spectrum did occur and they want to leave their spouse, because they're either in fear of their life or some something that is not maybe as egregious, but it's just ... It just doesn't work.

Kathryn Karam:          Right.

Cindy Hide:                So, what happens then? Because typically these sorts of things show up immediately. Once they get back on U.S. soil, it can be as fast as coming home, opening the door and here's how you're gonna live, closing the door or even locking the door and coming back later that evening to see if that person's still in the room. So, what are the next steps for that individual? Because let's suppose that there is no money. I mean, and that's where maybe a family law attorney needs to be involved immediately, so you can petition the court for some temporary support. But if ... There might not be money for attorney's fees.

Kathryn Karam:          Right.

Cindy Hide:                What does someone do in this situation?

Kathryn Karam:          Well, nonprofit organizations can be very important.

Cindy Hide:                I'd like to clarify this point about deportation or the possibility of deportation if someone reports, even though they don't have their green card yet or they've been married only a very short time, talk to me a little bit about those scenarios.

Kathryn Karam:          If someone reports domestic violence or some other kind of abuse, it may not matter at all whether they have legal status in the country, because lots of law enforcement officers are trained to recognize victims of domestic violence and to refer to support organizations, like we mentioned earlier, that can help the person, but also it's important for people to know ... Because a lot of people are told, I will have you deported if you try to do anything about this. If you try to leave me. If you try to apply for anything. And that's part of the power and control cycle that abusive people use and they know that. They know that it's scary to hear that and that it might intimidate someone to the point that they don't take action, but it's also important for people to know when we file ... In immigration law, we have several things we look at for victims of abuse, one of them is the Violence Against Women Act for people who have been married to a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, even if you're still married to them, even if you're still living with them, if you apply to stay here based on the Violence Against Women Act, the unit of the immigration service that takes your case does not contact your spouse.

Kathryn Karam:          That's part of the rules surrounding the processing of these applications, because that would be dangerous for the person applying and there would be no incentive to do so.

Cindy Hide:                That's good information. Thank you.

Kathryn Karam:          So, it's important for people to know that if you qualify to apply for relief under the Violence Against Women Act, you qualify to get a green card based on that or at least remain here based on that, your spouse should not be contacted at all. You can also list an alternate mailing address that they can use, because you need to think about if you are still living with your spouse and you're pursuing this, you don't want your mail coming to your home and your spouse opening it and seeing this.

Kathryn Karam:          So, those are important things for people to know about. As far as the concern about being deported if somebody reports, the process of deportation, when it does happen, it's not something that happens super quickly. It often involves people being here at least two weeks before anything happens, which can be enough time for you to make contact with an attorney or someone to help you if you hadn't already. So, the idea that someone will uni ... That your spouse will unilaterally have immigration remove you from the country, that's not how our system works and it's good that it doesn't, because we don't want people to abuse the system in that way and to take advantage of people. There are also other things that people need to know about. There is a visa for victims of certain crimes. Domestic violence is one of them. There's also ...

Cindy Hide:                There's a special visa just for that?

Kathryn Karam:          It's called the U visa for victims of qualifying criminal activity, so ... And sure, it's a visa for crime victims if they're victims of certain crimes and they've helped law enforcement or they might be helpful to law enforcement in the future. It requires a law enforcement agency certifying that the person has been helpful or will be, and so if a crime occurs and it's never reported, we don't have that avenue. We need to be able to show that the person made the effort to bring this to light. There's also a T visa for trafficking victims and so when someone finds himself in a situation where they experience sex trafficking, like what you mentioned earlier, someone being forced to perform sexual services for people in exchange for things, even if it's your spouse. Sometimes it's still sex trafficking if your spouse forces you to have sexual contact in order to have what you need to survive. Those are important things for people to know about, because those things are all processed in a part of the immigration service that will not notify your spouse or the person you allege has abused you.

Kathryn Karam:          People need to know that there is that confidentiality. It's also important that people be aware that if you are in immigration court and the government is seeking to remove you, your information should not be available to anyone who calls to get information about your case. So, the automated 1800 number we use to find out when people are scheduled for the next hearing will not release the information about a person if they have applied for Violence Against Women Act.

Cindy Hide:                Even to your spouse?

Kathryn Karam:          Even ... No matter who ... Even to your attorney.

Cindy Hide:                Oh, okay.

Kathryn Karam:          Even if someone has filed for Violence Against Women Act before they came to see me, I call the number, I put in there identifying number and I can't get the info. It's that guarded, but also I just think it's really important for people to understand that an abusive person will always tell you, I'm going to do this to you if you do anything about this. I'm going to stop you. I'm going to make sure you're punished. That's part of how a person maintains control. So, at some point, if you're in an abusive marriage, you have to make the determination that you're going to take action knowing that yes, this person may do something. They may make it difficult. That's why contacting someone and having a plan to get out of your circumstances is important, but also it's important to have legal advice, because it's really important to be able to check with your attorney about what's being said.

Kathryn Karam:          I've represented lots of people who were in divorce proceedings at the time that we were filing for Violence Against Women Act and their spouses divorce attorney was contacting them saying, we are going to get you kicked out of the United States, which is very bad on many levels, but it's also just not true. I think that it's important for people to have their advocate who can help them through the immigration process, but also can stop the misinformation that's causing somebody to be in fear. Stop the control over them.

Cindy Hide:                So, about how long does it take to go through this entire process? And I realize that might not be a fair question, because there's so many potential intervening circumstances, but you mentioned earlier, this is not something that happens overnight. So, are we talking months, six months, a year, two years? I mean, what's the window there that the might be part of that expectation?

Kathryn Karam:          Well, obviously it depends on where somebody is with their immigration process, but if someone comes to me in an abusive marriage and they don't have any status here, anything they had before has expired, when we're looking at filing for Violence Against Women Act, oftentimes the process from filing to decision on their petition is about a year and a half to two years. That scares a lot of people when they first hear it. It's a long time, but what I tell people is very important is that it's important for us to get this ready and to file it, because the filing of it is a layer of protection for you.

Cindy Hide:                Right.

Kathryn Karam:          Because the immigration process is not always as linear and direct as we think of it when we're talking about in general terms. So, if someone is here, they don't have any status, they don't have anything to show they're authorized to be here right now and they qualify, my thought is we need to prepare this and get it filed, because then you will have this paperwork saying this person has filed this, they appear to be qualified, we are processing the application and you can use that, it's called a primae facia determination of eligibility, an applicant can use that primae facia determination to apply for an ID or driver's license in the state of Texas and in many other states. A person may be able to file an application for a green card at the same time that their Violence Against Women Act case is pending and that is another layer of protection for someone. It's a layer of authorization to remain here while it's pending.

Kathryn Karam:          They can apply for a work permit at that point and so it gives somebody some documentation that they're in the process, that they're doing something. It gives people options for getting a state issued ID and possibly a work permit and a social security number. And those are all things that are really important for someone who's trying to get out from an abusive situation. Having your own id, having your own ... Having your ability to take a job and try to support yourself. All those things are very important. Many people are just terrified that if I'm just in a car and it gets stopped, and what if I'm asked for paperwork and I don't have it and I tell them, well, if we can get this filed, you'll have something. So, that's important to keep in mind.

Cindy Hide:                Right. So, let's say not from a family law perspective, because that's another world and another conversation, but from an immigration perspective, let's say shortly after someone does ... Has made an exit and they're in a safe place and they have contacted an attorney, an immigration attorney to help assist with this process, and husband says, okay, fine, I'm filing for divorce.

Kathryn Karam:          Right.

Cindy Hide:                So, how does that affect their status, from an immigration standpoint?

Kathryn Karam:          It really doesn't affect it. The Violence Against Women Act allows a person who is still married to someone to apply. It allows a person who is divorced to apply within two years of the divorce.

Cindy Hide:                Okay.

Kathryn Karam:          So, if the husband says, "I'm filing for divorce", it really doesn't change what we're doing. I do think, at that point, the person needs a family attorney to represent them in the divorce. It can't ...

Cindy Hide:                Definitely.

Kathryn Karam:          It's not something that somebody needs to be doing on their own and if somebody doesn't have the resources for that, there are nonprofits and immigration clinics that help with this kind of thing, but the threat of divorce often is another way to control a person in this kind of situation. It won't matter, in terms of the Violence Against Women Act, it won't affect a person's eligibility that they're in the process of a divorce.

Kathryn Karam:          It won't matter for purposes of a crime victim visa, if that's what a person is looking at. It won't matter for purposes of trafficking. So, if that is something that can't be stopped or can't be helped, it really won't change what I'm trying to do.

Cindy Hide:                So, let's talk for a minute about what happens if the spouse, the abusive spouse, passes during the pendency of VAWA litigation or VAWA application or at any point in the process after it's been reported.

Kathryn Karam:          If the abusive spouse passes away, a person has up to two years from the date that they passed to file for Violence Against Women Act, because if that should happen, you still have time to apply. The rule of, if you divorce someone, you have two years in which to file for VAWA is the same for if the spouse passes away and so you haven't lost the opportunity if that takes place.

Cindy Hide:                Okay.

Kathryn Karam:          It's also important to know that for other cases of just crime victims or trafficking victims, it may not matter at all if you, if the trafficker or the person who perpetrates the crime on you, which might be your spouse, passes away. It may not affect what you're able to do at all. And so you still wanna pursue what you have.

Cindy Hide:                So, I assume that would be the same whether or not you're separated?

Kathryn Karam:          Yes.

Cindy Hide:                At any point.

Kathryn Karam:          Yes, that's true, because if a couple stops living together, but maybe divorces years later, it is two years from the date of the divorce that they may still file for VAWA. So, I have represented a person who was separated from her husband for several years and then they finally divorced and that was not an issue for purposes of her VAWA application, what we always need to show is that it was a good faith marriage and that a lot of people say, well, how will I prove that I entered into a marriage in good faith? What does that even mean?

Kathryn Karam:          What it really means is that you didn't marry someone as a transaction just to get some kind of papers in the United States. You really intended to have a life together with this person and ...

Cindy Hide:                That would be called a sham marriage?

Kathryn Karam:          Right. And VAWA applicant's often say, well, I don't know how I can get any proof of this, and this is where it's important to have an advocate helping you, because there are a lot of ways that we don't think about day-to-day to show that. There are your neighbors, at the place where you and your spouse live, that might be able to say, yes, I know that these two people were living there together. They don't have to take a side. They can just say they were aware that you were living together. When you go to see a doctor, if you go to see one, you often have to fill out a form saying who your emergency contact is and whether you're married or not. That can be used. If you have children and they're put in school, you often have to list people who might show up to pick them up and your spouse is usually one of them, maybe until you find out how they really are. And so using your kids' school records might be something you need to do. So, there are a lot of different ways to show that and it's important for people who separate to know that it's not ... The clock doesn't begin when you separate. It's when you divorce.

Cindy Hide:                That's great information. Kathryn, I wanna thank you so much for raising all the issues that we've talked about today. I think the bottom line is, first of all, if you find yourself in this situation to not panic about the threat of deportation and the importance of contacting local authorities or a nonprofit agency in your area to ask for assistance. I'm Cindy Hide for Love, Money & the Law. Thank you.