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Spouse Hunters

Immigration, romance, and reality TV. What could go wrong?

In the “Pillow Talk” edition of TLC’s long-running hit show 90 Day Fiancé, alumni of the show sit on their beds or couches and poke fun at the couples currently cast on the show. There are lots of bawdy and tawdry comments from the men, and equal amounts of catty acidity from the women. Big Ed, a short man whose medical problems have left him with no visible neck and extraordinarily short stature, is parodied, primarily for just that. Not that Ed doesn’t deserve it; exploiting the extraordinary poverty of Rose, his Filipino betrothed, is not endearing, morally or otherwise. There’s more like him. David, a man who seems to have stepped out from the 1970s and is in his fifties, is nevertheless angling for Ukrainian sweetheart Lana, who has stood him up for seven years. I won’t keep you wondering—she does appear, thus constructing a few weeks ago the most dramatic moment of the show. In the reprocessing of the moment in the “Pillow Talk” edition, people almost scream.

These sorts of match-ups, riven with insecurity, exploitation, posturing, and deception, make up the meat of a show that is the top trend on Twitter nearly every time it airs on Sunday and Monday nights. It is an accomplishment of sorts because getting Americans interested in immigration is a challenge. In general, the plight of those who, for one reason or another, are on a quest for better lives, fleeing from near certain death, getting an education, has not been one that has struck a chord with the native-born and thus power-laden. It has been several long months since the collective conscience of America began to bear the burden of children seized from parents, of parents shoved into dark detention centers—and life has gone on as before. There is an admitted tolerance for the terrible, even in its arbitrary manifestations.

Those depredations of the U.S. immigration system are of course too dreary for reality television. No one can poke fun at snatched children or their parents; there is no opportunity to glow and gasp and aww at reunions that never happen. Even more lacking in drama is the tightening bureaucratic noose asphyxiating perfectly legal international students or work visa holders. The former, or rather the Ivy League universities that rely on the international student tuition rates that they pay, were able to settle a lawsuit with the Trump administration after the latter sent out a rule that would have made it impossible for any of them to live in the United States if they were not in-person classes. Sneaky as ever, the Trump administration still has the power to refuse entry to these students or declare that only those students already in the United States can stay.

The condition of H-1B, J, and L visa holders remains just as precarious. Once granted to highly skilled workers and intra-company transfers and researchers, their issuance has been entirely halted by the Trump administration. Those who have the visas and are in the country need not worry, they’ve been told. As for what happens when they need renewals, no one knows. It’s nail-biting anxiety, this habitation of American life while teetering on the cliffs of exclusion, but it has not caught the attention of any enterprising reality show creator. It could be for entirely tribal reasons; the crowd likes an American to root for and those who arrive at America’s gruff shores on their own merits make for less mesmerizing dramatics.

The vast majority of unions are at least a little if not a lot exploitative but not for the reasons that are pushed by the show.

90 Day Fiancé gets its name from the ninety days that a foreign fiancé and their American sponsor (suddenly a hegemon) spouse have to marry before the K-visa expires. The vast majority of unions are at least a little if not a lot exploitative but not for the reasons that are pushed by the show. Angela, an obese Trump-adoring grandmother from rural Georgia, intends to marry handsome Michael, her junior by twenty-three years. Whether Michael “loves” Angela only because it would allow him to leave Nigeria is something we are encouraged to consider through the rows and rackets that make up this relationship.

There is far less scrutiny of old white American men and women lugging young hopeful and relatively powerless Nigerians, Ukrainians, Filipinos, and others as human souvenirs. There is a hegemon-like power dynamic here; instead of a much-touted marriage of equals that is the model for other Americans—the one prescribed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires that foreign spouses remain “conditional” (read beholden) to their sponsoring American spouses for at least two years. By then, the patterns of power in a marriage have likely entrenched themselves, or those who cannot take this skewed power play have fled, reconciled to being single and poor and lacking opportunity rather than to live at the whim of their overbearing spouse.

The power differential between American men and women who scoff at the want and poverty and inefficiency of India and Nigeria (Sumit, the Indian beau of jowled and bespectacled Jenny, has the hardest time getting a divorce; Angela and Michael, trying to wed in Nigeria, can’t get a driver’s license) is constantly visible. The inconveniences of other countries’ rules are heavy burdens on American spouse hunters; their ensuing dramatic and high-pitched exasperation makes for good television. Ironically, what you will never see on a show named after a visa category, its structure determined by its parameters, are any immigration officials or immigration courts; beyond an occasional visit to a lawyer, all the onerous forms and pieces of evidence and other papers that have to be gathered up to navigate the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are omitted.

The American immigration system à la TLC has none of the dark parts: the snatched children, the suddenly detained parents, the constant creeping fear that envelops immigrant families. No subplot or spin-off considers if it’s really that bad for a young man or woman to want a green card in addition to wanting to marry this American they met on the internet. The mere suggestion of ulterior motives is enough to toss out the whole relationship; only the utterly pure for Americans.

A puerile perspective may hold that not every show can show every cruelty. 90 Day Fiancé is but a reality show subject to the reductions and slipshod cover-ups of the genre. If one is looking for an answer as to how Americans can bear the moral burden of having children snatched from parents, scattered through foster homes, made to endure the deep trauma of being caged, then the answer is in shows like 90 Day Fiancé. By literally romanticizing a system that judges all others as interlopers, the show justifies a system that sees everyone else in the world as somehow lesser. In this sense, every relationship in the show is a study of how hegemony works, with every American citizen on the hunt for a foreign spouse miming the same bullying tactics. (Michael bullies his Brazilian bride Juliana about every penny he has given her; Anna calls off her wedding with Turkish Mursel just because he hasn’t told his parents, residents of the seaside city of Antalya, about her earlier children.) The country as hegemon is thus transformed into the citizen as hegemon, with all the brash and entitled heavy-handedness of the former replicated like a microcosm in every marriage whose contours are carved by a vast and increasingly illegitimate system of exclusion.