Bill Ronan says he was "one of the fortunate ones." He says his wife falsely accused him of domestic violence in order to get American citizenship, but that a sympathetic police officer stood up for him. That's why, he says, he was never charged — but he claims that countless men in America have lost their homes and lives to fraudulent allegations of domestic violence by immigrant partners.
"We have welcomed many scam artists into our country," he says.
Ronan is now a poster child for the strange new turn taken by the debate over the Violence Against Women Act. To him and his allies, immigrant women making false allegations are the true abusers, and men like him — accused of domestic abuse — are the true victims. Ronan and several men’s groups he’s affiliated with have campaigned against protections for immigrants in the VAWA for years, but for the first
time, their concerns are actually being heard.
Ronan and his allies argue that there's what he calls a "big national fraud" in which immigrant women claim to be abuse victims in order to gain residency or citizenship through the act, which can offer women permanent residency if they testify against abusive husbands.
The Violence Against Women Act actually offers two avenues for victims of abuse to seek immigration relief. Women in the US illegally can currently seek temporary visas if they are victims of domestic violence. These have been a central point of the debate surrounding VAWA reauthorization — a version of the reauthorization bill advanced by House Republicans would impose various restrictions on these visas, while the version of the bill passed by the Senate in April would expand access to them.
Immigrant women who are married to American men can also petition through VAWA to receive green cards if their husbands are abusive.
Ronan says women exploit these laws to stay in the US. “They know our laws before they get here, and then they get free citizenship," he claims, while their American husbands face imprisonment. He says this fraud has a domestic source: "The immigrant women wouldn't know how to do it if they hadn't learned from the American women."
Ronan is part of a group called the National Coalition for Men, which calls itself "the oldest men’s group committed to ending sex discrimination" and which has endorsed the Republican-sponsored House version of VAWA Wednesday. He's also the Minnesota coordinator of the Domestic Violence Legislative Project at Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE). SAVE has been lobbying House Republicans to include "reform to curb VAWA immigration fraud" in VAWA. But the financial interests behind the group have raised eyebrows. Its treasurer also started an international "marriage service" that was successfully sued by a Russian bride who said her American husband beat her. And he's been in contact with the group Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims, which has been following the VAWA debate in the House closely.
The latter group has been lobbying both houses of Congress to include in VAWA a requirement that immigration officials "consider evidence presented by a citizen spouse when a claim of abuse is made by an immigrant spouse, so that false claims of abuse cannot be used as an advantage to gain residency." Such a provision did in fact make it into the House version of the VAWA reauthorization bill — that version would allow immigration courts to consider evidence submitted by alleged abusers in their alleged victims' cases, while such evidence is currently only admissible if independently corroborated by another source. A proposed requirement that all claims of abuse be reported to the alleged abuser, though, has been stripped from the bill.
This may be what Dick Brannon of the Voice of American Immigration Fraud Victims was referring to in an email to supporters this morning.
"Unfortunately, House Leadership did not feel that there was enough support to keep the anti-fraud immigration provisions in the bill," he wrote. The email also says that "we have not given up," and that the organization is looking for more cases of alleged immigration fraud to help "draw more attention to this issue."
Immigration advocates, and some immigration lawyers, have watched the men’s claims with horror, and dismiss the possibility of fraud. Immigration attorney and chapter secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Dick Zonnefeld told BuzzFeed it would be extremely difficult for an immigrant woman to fraudulently gain a visa or permanent residency through VAWA. In order to obtain one of the temporary U visas, alleged victims need certification from a law enforcement officer that their claims are valid. Officials, he says, will decline to certify if they sense even "a whiff of fraud," and there's no incentive for them to certify at all. Any woman who got a U visa by fraud, he said, "deserves an Oscar" for her acting. The petition process for married women, he added, had no explicit requirement for law enforcement certification but still placed the burden of proof on the alleged victim, and would also be very difficult to abuse.
Far more common than any fraud by alleged victims, Zonnefeld added, were efforts by abusers to use women's fear of deportation to keep them silent. Some abusers, he said, know that the process of getting a temporary visa is extremely complicated, and "the abuser not only abuses the victim physically and emotionally, but they also use the difficulties inherent in the immigration process as another weapon."
Chicago immigration attorney Sam Myers is more circumspect about the possibility of women abusing the immigration system. He noted that immigration officials approach all visa applications of any kind with a suspicion of fraud, but that didn't mean they were particularly good at detecting it. He added that any part of the immigration process that "involves a person making a claim," whether it's an application for asylum, for a marriage visa, or for a temporary visa in a domestic violence case, had the potential for that person to "make up stories." And throughout the immigration process, he said, there are people "with the incentive to misrepresent fact" because they want to stay in the country. That said, he hadn't heard of any specific cases of women fraudulently claiming domestic violence for immigration purposes.
Advocates for the rights of women and girls, meanwhile, have turned the focus back on Ronan and his allies.
“To weaken these protections based on the false allegations of a 'mail order bride' company owner would jeopardize a system that works, and place women and their children facing life-threatening violence at risk of harm,” the Tahirih Justice Center said in a statement.
It's unclear how much direct influence SAVE and other groups have on legislators. Ronan said he’s spoken to a Minnesota State Senator, Steve Simon, who told BuzzFeed, "I'm aware of Mr. Ronan's concerns, but I'm not an expert on VAWA." Rep. Sandy Adams of Florida, a main sponsor of the House bill, has also been a vocal supporter of tougher immigration laws didn’t respond to an inquiry about the impact of the men’s groups on her views.
But whether or not men's rights groups have been directly responsible for this week’s intense debate, their concerns about fraud have made it into the House version of the bill. And even if those provisions are stripped from the bill, the movement to turn alleged abusers into victims is having its moment.