Originally published for Zora Magazine on October 20th.

Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”

Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.

Every show introduces us to a new crop of foreign nationals working their way through the labyrinthine U.S. immigration system for our entertainment. The Americans on the show allegedly receive a nominal appearance fee(reps for TLC tell ZORA that they are compliant with all relevant laws related to compensating participants). The stereotypical narratives that accompany each couple follow this formula: a “will-they-or-won’t-they” story arc, a look into an exoticized culture, and an “opposites attract” plot twist that colors every pairing. The franchise is entertaining and chaotic, with colonial fascinations and familiar beats of beloved American sitcoms. It has also become a ratings hit for TLC. The latest season of Happily Ever After? premiered to 4.1 million viewers.

Created by producer Matt Sharp, the show has remained apolitical as public discourse around draconian immigration policy escalated to a fever pitch over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations. TLC and 90 Day Fiancé strove to separate themselves from an increasingly polarizing conversation with Sharp explaining on the Reality Life with Kate Casey podcast that the franchise was a “super authentic, warts and all, look at love.”

Love, after all, is easier to sell than watercooler conversations about imperialism, xenophobia, and exploitative power imbalances. Nevertheless, they are simultaneously etched into the framework that serves as the bedrock of the American immigration system and TLC’s latest pop culture phenomenon.

TLC says the aim and success of the franchise are tied to celebrating cultural diversity through romantic partnership. “The show highlights that we can all get along, and there’s more that brings us together and unites us than divides us. We think that is one of the things that keep people coming back to the show. Part of the secret sauce is that diversity,” says Alon Orstein, TLC’s senior vice president of production. “To see that unspool and to see that love can win out.”

Love, after all, is easier to sell than watercooler conversations about imperialism, xenophobia, and exploitative power imbalances. Nevertheless, they are simultaneously etched into the framework that serves as the bedrock of the American immigration system and TLC’s latest pop culture phenomenon.

The show was never conceived to be sensitive to the particularities of immigration. Before 90 Day Fiancé became an empire, it was simply a pitched show about international love, based on a news magazine article about men and women going on international “love tours,” as Sharp explained toCasey. With that pitch failing, it rebranded itself as “Bachelor Wars: Russia,” attempting to corner male networks with a narrative of men connecting with women they met online to see if they fall in love. Producers stumbled onto the K-1 visa in the midst of their attempts to mold the previous iterations. As the story goes, the demo reel was shown to Lee and the rest is history.

“The 90-day time frame was one of the things that initially drew us to this concept,” Orstein says. “At the end of the day, these are about love stories [and] about navigating relationships — people trying to find the one. The K-1 visa, you know, can be a fascinating backdrop for that.”

Keeping this in mind, missteps were inevitable considering that Sharp revealed much of the production team crossed over from MTV’s Teen Mom world, which received its own criticisms for replacing accurate portrayals of young parenthood with controversial storylines. These machinations lend themselves to a sensational television experience while also exacerbating harmful stereotypes.

And few consider the collateral damage.

Take the genesis of the show, which is predicated around a slight misrepresentation of the conceit of the visa. In an interview for Vulture, Lee explains it like this: “Anybody who’s an American citizen who falls in love with a foreigner from another country, if you decide to propose to them, after you become engaged, they first must live in the USA for 90 days. At the conclusion of those 90 days, you must make a proclamation, ‘I plan on now getting permanently married to this person.’ But if both parties don’t agree to marry, that person who’s the foreigner must return to their home country. I found that intriguing. And I could understand what the finale would be: They’re going to have to make a decision whether or not they’re getting married.”

But Lee’s explanation is structurally incorrect. “When you petition for a fiancé visa, you promise the government that you are going to get married,” says Prem Kumar, CEO at Visa Tutor. “It’s not a dating period like the show makes it seem. In your petition paperwork that you promise to marry your fiancé when he or she lands in the U.S.”

Kumar is referring to a letter of intent that is submitted by both the American petitioner and the international fiancé declaring that they are legally free to marry and are committing to marrying within 90 days of arrival. “If someone enters on the K-1 visa to marry Person A, they have to marry Person A. Otherwise they can’t adjust their status to a green card holder down the road,” says Mario Godoy, an immigration attorney in Chicago.

With the K-1 status tethered to the American petitioner, any rupture in the relationship results in a lapse of status — even after marriage and initial dispensation of a green card. “At any point that an individual gets a green card, within two years of their marriage, they’re going to have to file another petition to remove those conditions, otherwise, they lose their green card status,” Godoy explains, referring to a form known as the I-751.

Generally, work authorization is not immediately granted and has to be petitioned for separately, which is why the foreign national is often unpaid — and why the couples on the show are often documented as seeking employment despite generating billions in revenue for a cable network. In the case of Lima, for example, since gaining employment authorization in March, she has earned money through Cameo appearances and OnlyFans, the de rigueur platform for influencers in quarantine. She is also reinvesting in her market value with multiple cosmetic procedures, paid for by her new romantic partner. Scorn ensued, dominated by moral handwringing by viewers over Lima’s participation in sex work and their views of her ability to responsibly raise her children remotely while they are forced to live separate from her in Brazil. This despite Lima’s insistence that the bulk of her profits are sent back to Brazil for her children.

On average, the process, starting from initial petition filing, can take anywhere from eight to 13 months and several thousands of dollars, according to Godoy. One of the biggest assessments at all points of the process — from the original petition to the embassy interview to the final arrival at point of entry — speaks to “preconceived intent.” This notion is also known as the aim of coming to the U.S. via a nonimmigrant visa, such as a B-2 tourist visa, with the intent to adjust status. A K-1 offers dual intent. It is a temporary visa, which, upon approval and processing, provides the pathway to permanent residence. As a result, K-1 applications are subject to higher levels of scrutiny.

When creating a nationwide sensation that places a spotlight on an oft-contested immigration process that foments nativist rhetoric from its viewers, some accountability is in order.

“Rejection rates are not presented by the Department of State [on a national basis],” says Fadi Minawi, managing director of VisaPlace. “This may encompass different reasons including the age difference between the couple, cultural differences, difficulty in communicating due to language barriers.”

There is also the common perception of a “high fraud risk” country, Kumar explains. People from these countries typically experience tougher interviews at the U.S. Embassy.

“A lot of African nations, a lot of South Asian countries are placed under scrutiny,” Kumar adds. “Middle East countries like Morocco are placed under huge scrutiny.”

Ultimately the truth belies the widely associated stigma. As Minawi points out, the Department of State approved approximately 80% of K-1 visas in 2019.

If these struggles and complications sound familiar, it’s because the themes appear throughout the 90 Day Fiancé franchise. The relationships between 54-year-old Angela Deem and 32-year old Michael Ilesanmi from Nigeria, Paul and Karine in Brazil, and 54-year-old Ed and 23-year-old Rose from the Philippines stand out as recent examples.

As Lee recently told Vulture, “a lot of couples were a study in contrast. They weren’t completely the type of couple you could imagine on television together, by their racial differences, their diversity, age difference.” In effect, the show plays directly into the tropes that raise red flags for petitioners in marriage-based interviews for K-visas. The producers engage the audience in authenticating these purported stories of true love in lockstep with the U.S. Embassy.

Adhering to Sharp’s philosophy that the best shows are “ones where there’s actually a debate on the couches of America,” the mirage of serialized romance quickly gives way to arcs that tease out tropes in immigration stories. Most notably, those narratives include fraud versus altruism or the power imbalance introduced when the American threatens deportation or revocation of a green card petition. There’s also the constant chatter of friends and family who embrace xenophobic reductions of the countries in question, ostensibly to protect their loved ones from being “used for a green card.”

The role of the audience as de facto immigration sleuths is supported by the nature of the social media engagement with the show. There is an active Reddit dedicated to investigating the couples’ true intent, Buzzfeed articles aggregating tweets, and an active community on the show’s Facebook page. A quick scan across these platforms reveals a recurring trend: Participants are most actively slanted against the immigrating party, while the Americans may be viewed as simpletons at best and fetishists at worst.

In reality, the debate presented by the show is a false one wrought out of a capitalist engine fueled by romance.

“There’s no requirement in immigration that you love your partner,” Godoy states, clarifying the rubric for legitimizing a relationship. “If you look at the law, that is not there. Otherwise, how would people with arranged marriages by families immigrate to the United States? Everyone thinks that it has to be for love. What the immigration law actually requires that you hold yourself out to be married.”

Marriage, after all, has historically been a business and legal contract. This fact holds within the K-1 process, which even makes accommodations for international marriage brokers despite seeking cookie-cutter narratives of partnership. As Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy: “Marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.”

Yet the show doubles down on the love notion, reaching out to people with established networks like Kumar — who had a subscribed readership to Visa Tutor of over 2,200 at the time — looking for “real people with interesting backgrounds and stories and potentially interesting situations,” as Sharp said. This is corroborated by Kumar’s recollection of his correspondence with Sharp Entertainment, which sought to cast colorful couples from his readership in exchange for a spot in the limelight and “a way to memorialize the relationship.”

Orstein reiterates that TLC is looking for love stories. “Where aspects of the K-1 or immigration are relevant to that love story, we’ve shed light on it [and] we will certainly go there. But that’s not what we’re looking at first and foremost,” he says. “Yes, I think some questions [come up]: ‘Is so-and-so in it for the right reason? Are they trying to get a green card? Is this really about two people trying to make it?’ Those are things, of course, that are central to the series. But we really do try to keep it more on the boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy, girl-meets-girl piece of this, which to us is where the real narrative lies.”

Underneath the well-scored theatrics and entertainment lies a dangerous tale of unethical disruption that enshrouds the love story arc the franchise purports to sell. And when the watch parties come to a close, it is frequently the non-Americans who are left to deal with the fallout.

In the case of Lima, she arrived in the U.S. under a K-1 visa, settling into a life with her American husband Colt Johnson in Nevada. The union was short-lived. After a contentious relationship where both accused the other of domestic violence and abuse, Lima was ultimately arrested twice. The marriage ended in divorce. Her ex-husband canceled his affidavit of support for her green card, placing her resident status in the country in limbo while she navigated criminal charges without work authorization or compensation from TLC.

Since then she has had several run-ins with ICE on national television. Most recently, Lima was flagged by ICE and given removal orders pending a trial. Simultaneously, she alleged her contractual relationship with TLC was voided due to her taking her entrepreneurial ventures over to CamSoda, where she was rumored to have made $100,000.

TLC obviously can choose how it would like its brand to be represented. However, when creating a nationwide sensation that places a spotlight on an oft-contested immigration process that foments nativist rhetoric from its viewers, some accountability is in order. Either the network or Sharp Entertainment could address their role in inflating power disparities when the stakes can be as high as detention or deportation. (A rep for TLC says that the network does not comment publicly on any nature of talent and contracts, per company policy.)

Pursuit of the so-called American dream is an ever-shifting landscape — a capricious exercise in game theory where imperialist gatekeepers consistently adjust the terms of engagement depending on their perceived risk of opening their borders to those seeking a new life, whether or not it lies in the arms of a partner. Within 90 Day Fiancé, political context is wilfully deemphasized in favor of championing the less challenging motifs of love and diversity as implicitly inclusive. As Orstein says, “we really do feel it’s perhaps the most diverse show on television, and maybe in the history of television.”

As apolitical as TLC would like the franchise to be, it is a functional impossibility, given the topic matter and context. The jingoistic idea of coming to America “for the right reasons” is buoyed by the conceit that the country requires authentication of love when in truth, it does not. This adjudication of immigrants is ultimately a judgment of someone with no access to separate means of income, family, or other forms of agency upon arrival in the country, and part and parcel of the system that leads to “kids in cages” and “expedited removal” policies that shocked many in the country into nationwide protests.

Cognitive dissonance is baked into TLC’s “Marvel universe.” Instead of confronting what measure of complicity 90 Day Fiancé has for weaving these discussions into the cultural zeitgeist, viewers seem to be more invested in getting a person who they view as unsavory out of sight, out of mind, and ultimately out of American shores. Underneath the well-scored theatrics and entertainment lies a dangerous tale of unethical disruption that enshrouds the love story arc the franchise purports to sell. And when the watch parties come to a close, it is frequently the non-Americans who are left to deal with the fallout.

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