In 1984, Richard Wesley dated several Los Angeles women, had 35 female pen pals throughout the world and did not lack for attention. Yet he was unhappy.
The UCLA dental school clerk had turned 40 without marrying and didn't think the women he was dating were suitable. They were divorced, he said, and seemed anti-men or set in their ways.
So he began thinking more about Elsie Jamora, one of his pen pals from the Philippines. A university student, she seemed flexible, loving, caring, interested and had a sense of humor.
Meeting in Manila
A few months later, Richard, now 42, met Elsie in Manila, took an eight-hour bus ride over dirt roads to her family's coconut farm and met her parents and 13 brothers and sisters. A few days later he married her in a local church.
Elsie Jamora, 24, is among several thousand "mail-order brides" in the United States, so called because she met her husband through a business that charges American men fees for lists of potential female pen pals. Many of the writers become romantically involved or marry.
Advocates of the system, including Tessie Florence, who runs American Asian Worldwide Services from her home near Santa Maria, Calif., say the arrangement allows couples to meet but forces no one to marry.
Florence says her business, which grosses more than $250,000 per year, offers women, most of whom come from the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia, a chance to leave poverty for a better life in the United States.
She said that among the 3,500 couples who met and married through her business since it started seven years ago, she knows of only seven divorces, although she suspects the true number is about 10%.
Sometimes, however, the women do run into trouble. In March, Honolulu police found the body of Filipino mail-order bride Helen Mendoza Krug, 28, in the garbage dumpster of the high-rise apartment where she lived. Her husband, Robert, 27, an American from Florida, awaits trial in the slaying.
Groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League of San Francisco argue that catalogues that present numbered pictures of the women dehumanize the women "as if they are inanimate items for display and purchase."
At a Disadvantage
The mail-order opportunity exploits "the desperation of foreign Asian women to enter the United States, and the loneliness and alienation of their male clients," a 1985 league report said.
"These foreign women are at a great disadvantage because of their unfamiliarity and ignorance of the American legal system, and the rules and regulations of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. . . ."
The report, signed by Irene Hirano of Los Angeles, national chairwoman of the league's Women's Concerns Committee, said that as a result of their lack of knowledge the women "may miss an opportunity to become a naturalized citizen, forfeit rights as a legal spouse, or live under an unwarranted fear of deportation, which may be fostered by their spouse as a means of control."
Hirano said the number of the unregulated pen-pal businesses throughout the nation is impossible to count, and she expressed concern about some fly-by-night operations that offer pictures of naked women in their mailings--a practice shunned by the established pen-pal services.
A growing number of lawmakers also worry that some foreigners, including mail-order brides, are using marriages to gain quick U.S. citizenship.
An INS spokesman said that while 270,000 people are allowed into the United States annually and 2 million are awaiting immigrant visas, 124,093 people gained immediate visas through marriage in 1985. That is an increase of 38% since 1980, when 90,887 people attained marriage visas.
To combat unlawful use of marriage visas, Sen. Paul Simon (D--Ill.) and Rep. Bill McCollum (R--Fla.) have introduced bills that would require Americans to meet aliens before they marry and would provide stiff penalties for immigration-related marriage fraud. Simon's bill calls for five years' imprisonment and/or fines of as much as $250,000.
Experts say that hard evidence on the status of mail-order brides does not exist because no studies have been done. To fill the void, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded the National Network of Asian and Pacific Women $147,000 to assess the status of mail-order brides and Asian military wives.
sh Surveyed 265 Men
In what is generally regarded as the only substantial research on the subject, sociologist Davor Jedlicka of the University of Texas at Tyler surveyed 265 men seeking partners in Southeast Asia. He did not survey women.
"American men in search of Oriental brides are above average in education, income, occupation and certainly in their communication skills," Jedlicka wrote. Among men who responded, 63% earned more than $20,000 annually, more than half completed two or more years of college and 42% worked as managers or professionals. Their median age was 37.
Critics of System