Subject: NEWS/US: A Mail-Order Bride From the Philippines Finds U.S. Marriage Is Grounds for Exile
From: Melanie Orhant (email@example.com)
Date: Tue Sep 07 1999 - 12:16:57 EDT
A Mail-Order Bride From the Philippines Finds U.S. Marriage Is Grounds for
By BARRY NEWMAN
The Wall street Journal, September 2, 1999
TALISAYAN, Philippines -- The first American Emilia Claar ever saw was her
older sister's boyfriend. Mrs. Claar was 15 then, and her name was still
Emilia Garbo Elegio. She lived in a bamboo hut, helping her father plant
rice on a patch of mountainside above this coastal village on the island of
Leyte. The boyfriend was a U.S. Marine.
"He looked different," she says. "Black hair. Fair skin. One time, he gave
me some chocolate. I thought: I like Americans, any American. Maybe I can
get married to somebody like him."
That was in 1981, and she clung to her thought until 1993, when she joined
the young, poor Filipinas in their thousands who have a go at marrying
Americans as mail-order brides. She sent her picture to a magazine called
U.S.A. Tomorrow, and set out on a voyage across seas of love and loveless
On a far shore -- in Ashland, Ohio -- she met Brian Claar, a dark-haired,
fair-skinned ex-Marine. In June 1997, they married. He was Mr. Right. But
he wasn't the man who found her photo in U.S.A. Tomorrow, and by law that
makes him Mr. Wrong. So the State Department and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service have barred Mrs. Claar from living in America with
her American husband for the next 10 years. Now she is back in Talisayan, a
mail-order bride stamped "return to sender."
Her village is waterlogged and lush, a crush of huts on the Camotes Sea. It
has a roster of roosters and yapping dogs. Scents of mildew and
bougainvillea float in its liquid air. Work is scarce, pay sinfully low.
Mrs. Claar and her extended family live in a concrete house, a sign of
manna from America: from her sister, who married her Marine and moved to
Ashland; and from her husband, who lives alone in Kansas now, dining on
The house has electricity and a telephone, and Mrs. Claar has a bedroom of
her own, where she keeps a picture of herself in a wedding dress, and a
Valentine's Day card from Brian. But neighbors whisper that the woman with
waist-length hair spends her days beside the outriggers on Talisayan's
beach, staring at the surf.
"I know I am the enemy of the American government," she says. "I don't want
to be the enemy. I want to be with my husband."
In principle, the American government wants Emilia Claar to be with her
husband, too. The priority of immigration policy is family unity. Of the
country's legal immigrants, more than 20% come to marry U.S. citizens. Yet
the government knows that marriage across borders invites fraud, and it
marshals an army of clerks to guard America's unsuspecting men, more often
than not, against the designs of alien women.
Three years ago, as an aside in one of the toughest immigration acts ever,
Congress cast an especially cold eye on mail-order matrimony. Citing an INS
estimate that 8% of all citizen-foreigner marriages were frauds, it
suggested that "substantial" numbers of mail-order brides use American men
to break into the country. It also surmised that the men beat up and
blackmail "many" of the brides they send for.
Congress ordered the INS to investigate. Its report this year speaks of
marriages "skewed to empower the male client" and of men feeling duped by
"conniving" women. The statistics, though, are less shrill. The INS
couldn't establish the "source and accuracy" of the 8% fraud estimate -- a
statistic Congress cited as coming from the INS itself. Of 96,000
green-card applications by foreign spouses in 1994, it found 717 denied for
a specific reason, only some for fraud; frauds arising from just 5,000 or
so mail-order marriages that year numbered about three.
Since 1995, foreign women who show their American husbands to be monsters
can flee them and get green cards anyway. Among 400 such cases active in
1998, mail-order brides accounted for two.
Either the rules are good at discouraging fraud and abuse, it seems, or the
government is bad at detecting them. In any case, the INS proposes to
address congressional concerns with a brochure. It would clarify the rules
for mail-order brides and warn them against America's dirty old men. Will
that scare off Filipinas? Unlikely. Mail-order matchmaking is already
illegal in the Philippines, yet more women from the country list themselves
(these days, on the Internet) than from anyplace else except the old Soviet
On the other hand, if an INS brochure had warned Emilia Claar against
tangling with the U.S. immigration system, she would have stayed in the
Philippines for good.
"I got my punishment," she says. "Now I wish I never met Paul."
A Twist in the Road
Paul Prescott: her original "pen pal," the man who bought her ticket to
America. Mrs. Claar has no idea where he is today. He came from New
Hampshire, where his daughter Lisa picks up a phone.
"It's a bitter subject," Ms. Prescott says, declining to divulge her
father's whereabouts. "I'm not going to tell him you called. I can say that
she came under false pretenses. She came for a free ride to the United
States. Once she got here, she wasn't interested in my father. That's how
it appeared to all of us."
But not to Emilia Claar. As she tells it, the story of her passage to
America is one of pure bewilderment.
She was 18 years old back in 1984 when she first left the rice paddies of
Talisayan for another jungle, Manila. "Maybe I can have a good future," she
remembers thinking. "Get something-a better life." She worked 18-hour days,
cleaning a house and waiting tables in a restaurant. She earned $10 a
month. In 1989, she went home to Talisayan; a typhoon had swept the soil
from her family's plot, and her father had died. By 1990, she was in
Olongapo City, infamous playground of America's Pacific Fleet.
"I was a waitress again," Mrs. Claar says. "I made big tips, but it wasn't
a dating bar or anything." The restaurant, at the gates of the naval base
on Subic Bay, was full of Americans. She had a boyfriend in the Coast
Guard. After he was shipped to Guam, her boarding-house roommate told her
about U.S.A. Tomorrow.
"I thought, I'm going to try it," she says. A friend helped fill out the
form. "I said I like a man who has only one woman. No alcohol. No drugs.
I'm 4' 11", I got long hair and dark skin. My hobbies are cooking, cleaning
the house, watching TV." A pile of letters came back, one from Mr. Prescott.
He appeared at Mrs. Claar's restaurant, unannounced, in late 1992. "He
looked very nice, very neat. When he talks, you can tell he's a nice guy."
He was 59; she was 26. She barely spoke English, but her friend Marlene,
who did, "was always there beside me," as interpreter and chaperone. She
says they spent a night together -- but a platonic one, with Marlene
playing chaperone. (Repeated efforts to reach Mr. Prescott through his
daughter to get his version of these and other events described by Mrs.
Claar were unsuccessful.)
Two days later, "he told me he loves me," and then flew home. He returned
in six months to propose marriage. She said yes, and so Mr. Prescott became
her sponsor for an American visa.
At some U.S. embassies, Mrs. Claar might have been able to pass herself off
as a tourist. But the Philippines ranks second only to the Dominican
Republic among "high-fraud" posts. Fake papers sell like dried mangoes in
Manila's Chinatown. A 24-hour crowd, trash and mud underfoot, lays siege to
the consulate gates. In an atmosphere thick with distrust, half the walk-in
visitor's visa applicants are refused.
So Mr. Prescott and his bride-to-be had to apply instead for a fiancee
visa, which carries two mail-order alarms: a couple must have met in person
-- a snapshot proves it -- and a foreigner must marry an American sponsor
-- and nobody else -- within 90 days, or leave. Mrs. Claar braved the
crowds, produced a photo of Mr. Prescott giving her a hug, and got the
visa. He sent a one-way ticket, happy to have her visit her sister in Ohio
before joining him in New Hampshire. In May 1993, Mrs. Claar flew straight
into America's cultural propeller.
Changing planes in Los Angeles was a horror ("I couldn't read the
television"); in Ohio came traumatic initiations to supermarkets, vacuum
cleaners, washing machines. She had planned a week with her sister, but
stayed on for an extra week of Americanization. Mr. Prescott called to
welcome her. They spoke briefly twice more. Then he called a fourth time.
"He said, 'I'm coming to get you,' " Mrs. Claar remembers. "I said, 'OK.'
Then there was something -- he got mad. He hung up the phone. Maybe I can't
understand him, maybe he can't understand me. It was the first time we
spoke without Marlene."
She phoned him, left messages. No reply. She wrote a letter. No answer. "I
think he changed his mind," she says. "I don't know why."
And that ended it. There she was, in Ohio, penniless. She knew her visa
required her to go home. Her sister, with two children, couldn't spare the
fare. Mr. Prescott had no obligation to help her. Feeling "like I'm in
prison," she stayed.
Her sister had a friend in Columbus, another Filipina, in need of help with
her children. Mrs. Claar moved. She worked for room and board, and a little
spending money. On weekends, the two drove to her sister's in Ashland. Most
Fridays or Saturdays, the women went to a disco called The Lounge. That's
where, in March 1994, her husband first set eyes on his future wife.
"He's just staring at me," Mrs. Claar says, putting her hair up in a bun
before taking a stroll to Talisayan's beach. "We stare at each other for
months. I'm thinking, maybe this is immigration. They're going to pick me up."
"I couldn't keep my eyes off her," Brian Claar is saying. "I'm not shy. She
was intimidatingly beautiful."
We're not in Talisayan anymore -- this is Kansas.
In his Geo Prizm, Mr. Claar has left Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill
(on a six-lane road flanked by brand-name chains) and rolled up at his
one-bedroom rental in Shawnee to try explaining how his wife has come to be
confined to the other end of the earth.
Pictures of Emilia look down from his living-room walls; her silk wedding
bouquet lies on a shelf behind the dining table. Mr. Claar puts his feet up
on the love seat and kicks off his loafers.
"I'd go through boot camp again rather than have one more day of this," he
says. "At least you knew it was going to be over."
Strongly built, going on 40, he was raised in Roaring Spring, Pa., dropped
out of college, served four years in the Marines (one in Japan) and came
out a sergeant. He sold real estate in North Carolina, then lived with his
folks (they had moved to Ashland) and got a business degree from Ohio
State. He had an assistant manager's job at a Wal-Mart the night Emilia
walked into The Lounge disco.
It took him until October to get the nerve to talk to her. They chatted;
her English was passable by then. He asked if he might call her. Still
afraid, she gave him a wrong number. Then, a few days later, there she was
at the Wal-Mart, smiling in relief at the site of his name tag. He took her
out that night, and many nights more.
Mr. Claar had been stung a few times and was in no hurry to tie the knot.
Gradually, he learned of Paul Prescott. It came to him toward the end of
1995 that he was probably going out with an illegal alien, but he said to
himself, "What's the problem? Immigration let her in." When he landed a job
checking stray phone bills for Sprint in Kansas City, Mo., she moved with
him. In June 1997, they were wed in the backyard of his parents' house in
"As soon as we got married," Mr. Claar says, "I knew we had to walk up to
an INS officer and turn ourselves in."
In July, they did.
At that moment, it happens, thousands of other foreigners were facing a
decision. A new rule had taken effect on April 1, 1997. From that day,
anyone found to have lived illegally in the U.S. for over six months could
be removed and not let in again for three years, and anyone illegal for
over a year kept out for a decade. Those with solid chances of becoming
legal immigrants at some future point could, from April 1 on, apply only
from their own countries. So they had to make up their minds: Leave soon
and wait at home for their visas to come through, leave too late and bang
into the bar to re-entry -- or never leave and stay illegal for good.
The exceptions were illegals immediately eligible to apply for green cards
-- most spouses, for instance, of U.S. citizens. For them, the mere act of
filing an application would stop the clock.
When Mr. and Mrs. Claar walked into the INS office in Kansas City, they
knew none of this. The story was in the papers, but Mr. Claar gets his news
from television, not the best medium for keeping up with immigration rules.
They hadn't thought of going to a lawyer -- this wasn't something
complicated, like making out wills or buying a house. Mr. Claar figured his
government would tell them what to do.
They stood at a counter and talked to a clerk for 15 minutes. They told him
Mrs. Claar's whole story -- the fiancee visa, the muddle with Mr. Prescott,
the overstay. The clerk gave them instructions: Mr. Claar should petition,
show the marriage was real, show he could support her; she would apply for
permanent residence as his wife. It took two months to complete the forms
and collect the documents. In September, they went to the INS and gave the
file to another clerk.
"She went through every page," Mr. Claar says. "She recited our whole
history." On the same day, Mrs. Claar was granted a temporary employment
pass. Her years of hiding were over. In November, she began work behind the
cosmetics counter at a local Wal-Mart. The INS scheduled a routine
interview for them in February.
This time, they sat across a desk from an agent, who handed them a piece of
paper. It said Mrs. Claar's application was denied. She had come to America
to marry Mr. Prescott, the agent told them, and wasn't allowed to marry
anybody else, not even a citizen. If she had smuggled herself in aboard a
freighter, and then married Brian Claar, the INS would have legalized her
in Kansas, no problem. But she was a mail-order bride who came on a special
visa designed to prevent fraud. Her paperwork would have to be handled in
There was no hurry. "Just don't take a couple of years," Mr. Claar
remembers the agent saying. On that day, anyone illegally in the U.S. since
the previous April still had almost two months to get out. The Claars
didn't know it. Maybe the agent didn't either.
The case was moving along in any event. Mr. Claar's petition as his wife's
sponsor was approved. She stayed on at the Wal-Mart until September 1998,
when her permit expired, and flew home, glad for a chance to visit her
family. The U.S. Embassy set a new interview for February 1999. Loaded with
presents, Mr. Claar journeyed to Talisayan for a week's holiday. Then the
two left for Manila.
"There was an ungodly long line outside the embassy," he says, but citizens
needn't wait. They were brought into a cubicle. He was asked to step
outside while a consular officer spoke to his wife alone. In five minutes,
the door opened.
"I could tell by the look on her face that they'd told her she couldn't
come back," says Mr. Claar. "At this point it gets fuzzy in my mind. I
remember looking over and seeing Emilia crying, feeling tears come up,
trembling, demanding to see a supervisor, promising her this must be a
mistake, my country doesn't do this."
Mr. Claar does remember exactly what the supervisor said. She said: "You
want to be with your wife? You have the whole world to be with her in --
just not in the United States."
Recently, in a cool, clean conference room at the embassy, a group of INS
and consular staffers agree to throw some light on that scene. They won't
discuss the Claars by name, or let their own names be printed. But the
explanation comes to this: For an illegal alien like Emilia Claar, the
clock never stopped ticking.
As Paul Prescott's failed fiancee, she had no business applying for a green
card in Kansas City as Brian Claar's wife. She was ineligible. The fact
that the INS told her to apply and accepted her papers is irrelevant. So is
the fact that the INS gave her the right to work and let her wait five
months for an interview, keeping her busy until she qualified for nothing
but a 10-year bar to re-entry.
"This being a new exclusion ground, the public as well as some attorneys
aren't up on what the regulations are," says one of the INS staffers.
"People file frivolous applications all the time. It's not our
responsibility. The individual is supposed to know. A clerk is not expected
to dish out legal advice."
In Washington, a senior INS attorney listening anonymously to the details
says: "Accepting the application was probably a mistake. It was a mistake."
Does that give Mrs. Claar a way out? "No. You'd be arguing that the
government is prevented from denying an application because we accepted it.
That doesn't work."
When their consular interview ended last February, the Claars were directed
across the hall to an INS clerk. Mrs. Claar was told she had one hope:
proving her absence would cause "extreme hardship" to a U.S. citizen. They
gave her a form. At their hotel, Mr. Claar wrote nine pages in longhand,
describing his grief at being left in Kansas alone, how he had seen a
psychologist who prescribed Prozac. Mrs. Claar signed her name, and they
sent the form in.
An extreme-hardship waiver, created by Congress in 1996, is extremely hard
to get. A citizen forced to move overseas wouldn't suffer adequately under
INS guidelines. A disease helps, but just one disease might not do it. In
June, Mrs. Claar got a letter from the INS rejecting her husband's plea. It
said, "Common results of the bar, such as separation, financial
difficulties etc., in themselves are insufficient to warrant approval of an
application unless combined with much more extreme impacts."
The letter gave the Claars 90 days to produce more evidence. Mr. Claar,
back in Kansas, is seeking affidavits from his doctors. Then the INS will
decide whether "extreme hardship" can be defined as a clinical depression
brought on by its own administrators. An answer should come in a few
months. Meantime, Mr. Claar has started searching for a job in Canada that
would allow him to settle there with his wife. And in Talisayan, Emilia
sits on the beach, still wondering if she has a tomorrow in the U.S.A.
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