On November 8, Slate published an article asking, "Are a small number of immigrant wives faking domestic abuse to stay in the country?" It alleges that immigrant women are pretending to be abused by their spouses in order to exploit a provision of the Violence Against Women Act, which in certain cases allows abused non-citizens married to citizens or permanent residents to avoid deportation and/or petition for a green card rather than relying on their spouse to do so on their behalf.
That's a pretty inflammatory allegation. I sure hope the author has some real evidence to substantiate this supposed trend and isn't just casually fueling anti-immigrant extremists by casting doubt on the claims made by battered immigrant women.
The article claims that "hundreds of American men say" their wives exploited VAWA to stay in the country, but provides no source for this already ambiguous figure, "hundreds." Should we assume the author spoke to all of these men? Did she also verify their claims?
The author recounts the story of a Virginia man who says he was wrongly accused of abuse by his Russian immigrant spouse, who he met on an online dating service. Was the woman permitted to stay in the U.S. through the VAWA provision? Who knows? The author doesn't say.
The article goes on to claim that "the intimations of fraud aren't just coming from angry ex-husbands (and a few wives). Immigration agents, lawyers, and the brokers who facilitate marriages between Americans and foreigners say that VAWA is sometimes exploited." Again no source for the claim that agents, lawyers and brokers say this is happening, and no details on what "sometimes" means. From what we're given in the article, the author appears to be basing this assertion on the opinion of John Sampson, a former ICE investigator, who "says immigration authorities make no effort to validate documents submitted by a wife claiming abuse, do not interview her, and discount evidence from the American husband that contradicts the abuse claim."
What the article doesn't tell you: Sampson runs a "Consulting and Investigations" firm whose clientele consists of people who say they were "victimized not only by cold and calculating foreign national brides, but by the 'system' itself." In other words, he makes money by helping men prove that their spouses are faking domestic abuse. Sampson has also signed affidavits used by Orly Taitz in her birther lawsuits seeking to prove that Barack Obama is not eligible to be president.
This is the author's attempt at quantifying this supposed trend:
No one knows how widespread the fraud might be, though it's probably a small portion of all the spouses who apply for immigration relief saying they've been abused. In 2009, 8,534 people tried to gain permanent residency through VAWA's abuse provision, and 73 percent succeeded. Government databases don't track how many of the 2,000 or so denials were turned down on suspicions of fraud, as opposed to another reason such as lack of evidence.
So around 2,000 people who petitioned for a green card through VAWA were turned down in 2009. Could that mean that the system is working as it should and rooting out most fraud cases? Who knows? The article does not identify a single case in which a woman successfully obtained permanent residence by faking domestic abuse.
Earlier this week Slate's own media critic Jack Schafer noted that reporters frequently rely on the phrase, "While accurate numbers are hard to come by ..." in an effort to turn "news tips, hunches, half-formed story ideas, scraps of information, and soft rumblings in the distance ... into solid news stories." Schafer wrote:
Usually when a journalist drops the phrase into his story it's because 1) he couldn't be bothered to find the number; 2) nobody has tabulated the number because nobody cares, and if the reporter writes that, he'll undermine the thesis of his piece; or 3) the story's editor insisted at the 11th hour on a number and the fudge phrase was the only thing that could be plugged into the hole.
Numbers are hard to come by pops up in lots of bogus trend stories, that genre of journalistic fraud that I've savaged repeatedly in this column. In bogus trend pieces, the phrase is almost a "tell," signaling that the publication knows that it's guilty of trying to document something as a trend when only the loosest anecdotal evidence exists to support the idea.
Well, this appears to be a bogus trend story. Unfortunately, in dealing with domestic abuse and immigration fraud, it is one with much more serious implications than the one "about dudes who love cats."