By Yoichiro Yamada
Consul General of Japan in Seattle
(This was first published in The Seattle Times on April 19, 2018).
The #MeToo movement has shown us the great injustice to women taking place throughout the world. Yet there is another form of abuse against women of which I have recently come to know: The abuse against foreign spouses in the United States as a result of unjust divorce proceedings.
After I arrived in Seattle last year, the Consulate’s attorney told me that she receives an overwhelming number of inquiries from Japanese wives married to American husbands. These women are isolated from society and facing divorce.
As Washington state has become a hub of international commerce, the number of immigrant women married to U.S. citizens has increased.
Many couples are happily married, but there are wives enduring domestic violence in the forms of physical, emotional and legal abuse.
Because most of these women do not know how the American legal system works, lack financial resources and do not speak English very well, their husbands often take advantage of them. Children are a common attack point used against these women. If the husbands threaten to take full custody of their child, the mothers end up signing divorce papers under terms that put them at an extreme disadvantage.
As a result, the women give up their fair share of assets entitled under Washington law.
Once divorced, these women choose to stay in the U.S. rather than be separated from their children and often face financial difficulties, with no job but children to raise. Many end up relying on food stamps or food provided by the church. They are in great danger of becoming homeless, and many fall into depression. At worst, they are driven by poverty into prostitution. Occasionally, we read about police sting operations where a prostitution ring is rounded up and foreign women are involved. I heard from other consulates that this vicious pattern is widespread among many foreign nationals.
This problem is getting more serious as Washington state’s immigrant population rapidly increases; their plight becomes a dark shadow of the bright prosperity the state represents. As these women are neither voters nor taxpayers, their suffering goes unnoticed. They remain victimized, vulnerable and voiceless.
The current condition of foreign spouses should be a concern for Washington state. The victims are not just the women, but also their (often American) children. It would be better social policy to hold the husbands accountable and make them provide for their former spouses and children in accordance with the law.
I have met nearly 30 state legislators over the past few months, including the Senate majority and minority leaders. Be it Democrat or Republican, all were shocked to learn of the situation and pledged their support. Early this March, the Legislature passed a supplemental funding bill that included a new fund to support the nonprofit organization established by our attorneys to help these victimized immigrant women by providing legal advice in contested divorce matters. The determination for justice and humanity shown by the legislators convinced me that Washington state is true to its reputation as an open, fair and just state.
How can we address the problem? Several actions are needed. First, social awareness should be raised to prevent such cases. Institutions with significant numbers of foreign spouses, such as the military and large corporations, should be encouraged to address the issue. Second, a deterrence mechanism should be introduced; the knowledge that these women are supported by attorneys in ensuring fair divorce proceedings may lead their husbands to have second thoughts on taking advantage of their wives.
Washington state already is very attractive, and a safe place for its current and future residents. It will continue to grow as an international business hub — so will the number of foreign spouses.
Protecting the rights of these silent victims today will be the right thing to do for a brighter and more productive future tomorrow.