(Playfully plucky marimba-and-horn music plays.)
Tracie Hunte: So, to begin, I am going to send you a link. It’s a little bit long—it’s like seven minutes or so—’cause this is your first time watching 90 Day Fiancé, anything having to do with 90 Day Fiancé, right?
Julia Longoria: That’s correct.
Hunte: Okay, okay.
Longoria: I’m just curious, like, why are you interested in this? Like, why should someone care?
Hunte: (Insistently.) Watch the clip, Julia! (Laughs, and Longoria joins in.)
(Music shifts into long, sustained notes to build drama.)
Longoria: We start today with correspondent Tracie Hunte guiding me into the unknown: the world of reality TV.
(A dramatic but upbeat musical flourish plays, like the intro to a theme song, before moving back to the plucky, quirky music.)
Hunte: Okay. So, Julia, 90 Day Fiancé is a wildly popular show on TLC. It’s about couples who are international—like, it’s usually one person lives in America, and the other person lives somewhere overseas—and I want to begin your 90 Day Fiancé journey with one couple in particular: Colt and Larissa.
Longoria: Okay. I’m gonna—do I hit play?
Hunte: Yes. Hit play!
Colt: My name is Colt. I’m 33 years old. I live in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Hunte: We are in Las Vegas, Nevada, and we’re at the airport, and we’re meeting Colt and Larissa. Colt is a white guy in his 30s. He lives in Las Vegas.
Larissa: I am Larissa, 31 years old, from Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Hunte: And Larissa is from Brazil. She is also in her 30s. And they met online. They went on vacation together—to Cancun, I think—and after five days of this vacation together, Colt asked Larissa to marry him. And so she said yes.
Longoria: After one date they decided to get married?
Hunte: Yes, effectively one date. So what we’re doing right now is that we’re meeting Larissa for the first time. She’s just flown into Las Vegas, and this scene is basically her first impressions.
Longoria: First impressions of Las Vegas, right?
Larissa: Here is hot.
Colt: I don’t have air-conditioning. [A chuckle.] It’s going to get a little hotter too.
Larissa: Oh my. I can feel the hot, warm.
Hunte: First of all, she’s hot. [Longoria chuckles.] It’s not the same sort of warmth in Brazil. I’ve been to Brazil; I know the difference between desert heat and beach heat, [Both laugh.] and I know which one I vastly prefer.
Larissa: My first goal in America is marry. Second, apply for the green card. And third, buy a car with air conditioner. [Laughs.]
Larissa: I thought that was more big, you know.
Colt: It’s pretty big.
Larissa: Like New York.
(Up-tempo, jazzy, big-city ambience plays.)
Hunte: Las Vegas is also this thing that’s exported to the rest of the world through our movies and television shows—Ocean’s 11. Like, you get this idea that it’s this glamorous, glitzy, big city, you know, “American dreams.”
Hunte: Blah, blah, blah.
Longoria: Totally. Tall buildings, big lights.
Longoria: Like, casinos.
Larissa: My first impressions of Las Vegas? Not a city I expected. I confused Las Vegas with Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and New York. It’s not like the—the movies.
Hunte: And so you see her, like, get out of the car. She’s still very hot. She’s still very uncomfortable. And she’s like, “Oh, here’s the sign!” And this is the world-famous Las Vegas sign. It’s on postcards, it’s on magnets, it’s everywhere. And it was actually surprising to me, ’cause I also didn’t realize it was that small. (Laughs.)
Colt: Are you going back to Brazil? (Chuckles.)
Larissa: No, no! I’m sorry. It’s—here’s so warm.
Larissa: (Sighs.) Not in my American dream.
Colt: This is America.
(Melodramatic, heavy piano music plays for a moment.)
Hunte: So yeah. I think that there’s just a lot more going on here other than just, like, a disappointed woman coming from Brazil. I think it’s, like, way bigger than that.
(A musical descent pulls us into a dreamlike tapestry of synthesizers and percussion.)
Longoria: Okay, back me up for a second. Why is the show called 90 Day Fiancé?
Hunte: Well, it’s called 90 Day Fiancé because, if you’re an American person who wants to marry somebody from another country and you want to bring them to the United States, you can bring them to the United States on something called a K-1 visa, or a fiancé visa. And that gives that person permission to come to the United States to get married, but they have to do it within 90 days.
And so—at least, how it functions in the world of the TV show; I’m sure it’s different for a lot of couples—you’re going to spend those 90 days not only planning a wedding, but just, like, getting to know each other better, and figuring out whether or not you could actually live together, and whether or not this is what you want to go through with.
Longoria: So what you’re saying, like, 90 Day Fiancé is a TV show based around this one piece—or, really, like, this one clause—in U.S. immigration policy?
Longoria: I—I did not realize that. [Hunte laughs.] Like, I guess I’ve always … The thing I don’t like about reality shows is that, like, they’re sort of contrived. It’s like, “Oh, 90 days to fall in love.” And it’s like, “That’s not the way the world works.” But, in this case, it is. [Both laugh.] It literally is how the world works. Like, the U.S. government came up with this premise.
Hunte: Yes! Yes. And, Julia, because you haven’t been watching reality TV, you’ve been missing a very important lesson about U.S. immigration policy. [Both laugh.] And I think this show is also, like, a really good textbook example of Americans’ relationship with the world, and how the world sees Americans.
(Tonal shift: The music loops over the same few notes, hovering.)
Longoria: This week, correspondent Tracie Hunte, our resident reality-TV expert, watches one of the biggest shows on television and tells the story of how love got written into U.S. immigration law.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
(The notes hover for a moment more before cutting out.)
Hunte: Okay. So, new couple. This is Big Ed.
Big Ed: I’m Ed. I’m 54 years old. People know me as “Big Ed.”
(Fast-paced plucky guitar music plays.)
Big Ed: I’m from San Diego, California. [A camera shutter clicks.] And I am a professional photographer.
Hunte: Big Ed, American white man in his 50s. He actually gave himself the name “Big Ed.”
Big Ed: It’s funny because I’m not tall. I am actually 4’11.
Hunte: And then there’s Rose, who is much younger. She’s 23.
(Whimsical, reality-TV-show-style music plays, ostensibly to play up the comedy of the circumstances.)
Rose Vega: My name is Rose, and I am 23 years old. I’m live in Caloocan City, Philippines.
Hunte: They met on Facebook, and they’ve had their relationship just on Facebook, and, like, texting and calling. And he’s traveling to the Philippines to meet her and her family—and hopefully fall ever more deeply in love with her, and ask her to marry him.
Longoria: Yeah, okay. (Laughs.)
Big Ed: I spent the night at Rose’s home.
Hunte: And in this scene, Big Ed is waking up after spending the night in Rose’s house.
Big Ed: And this was one of the worst nights of my life. I’m completely drained. I haven’t slept. The mattress that I slept in was soaking wet. This was the first night I’ve ever spent without access to air-conditioning. And I hated it. And I feel broken.
(Music fades out.)
Longoria: (As Hunte giggles.) This is just so, so deeply uncomfortable to watch.
Hunte: So, like, a lot of this show is cringe. I should just say.
Longoria: Yeah. So walk me through what’s happening here.
Hunte: So, throughout the time that he’s in the Philippines, there’s, like, a scene where he’s asking her to shave her legs, because he doesn’t find her feminine enough for him. Or he makes a comment about her breath and gives her toothpaste and a toothbrush, but then it comes out that she actually has had an ulcer for many years, and that’s what’s causing her breath, and she’s actually self-conscious about it, and she brushes her teeth all the time. But, on top of all that, Ed travels to the Philippines from San Diego—something like six, seven thousand miles. And he goes because he’s gonna rescue Rose from this situation, this poverty that she’s in. And he’s already been doing that. He’s been, like, sending money to her and her family to help them out. But, from the second that he’s in the Philippines, he’s so completely helpless, and she’s the one that ends up having to rescue him this entire trip.
Why I find this so interesting is just, you know, to see this kind of power dynamic play out. And, also, like, it’s just also really interesting to see the disconnect between how Americans see themselves and how the rest of the world sees Americans.
(Soft, lo-fi music plays.)
Hunte: And so on this show, you see men like Big Ed. They say they lost hope that they could ever find a partner in the U.S., so they turned to international dating. And this is not just, like, some bizarre reality-TV show setup. Like, there’s a whole industry built around this kind of relationship.
Felicity Amaya Schaeffer: Marriage is one of those ways in which women have—for many, many generations and decades—used marriage to get ahead.
Hunte: Felicity Amaya Schaeffer is a professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race Studies at UC Santa Cruz. She’s also the author of the book Love and Empire. Way before 90 Day Fiancé, Felicity became interested in how immigrants were using marriage to cross the border into the U.S. Over three years, she talked to dozens of men and women who were interested in these kinds of relationships.
Schaeffer: I ended up in Colombia and Mexico, interviewing women and men at these vacation romance tours about why they were interested in dating someone. Um …
Hunte: Wait, what’s a “vacation romance tour”? (Schaeffer chuckles lightly while Hunte laughs outright.)
Schaeffer: So, that is, um, these sort of big social parties that different companies host so that men from the United States and Canada can travel to Latin American countries and meet women in a big social event.
(Lightly bouncy music plays.)
Hunte: So here’s what Felicity discovered. Say you’re a woman in a foreign country interested in marrying an American man. You might contact one of these international dating sites, and they’ll get some photos of you and include some of your stats.
Schaeffer: Their weight, how tall they are—all kinds of personal information—and then their contact.
Hunte: The company then compiles these packages filled with these photos and contact info for all these women into these digital catalogs, and American men can look through them. And if they see someone they like, they could email them.
Schaeffer: And then, usually, they’ll all come together for these big sort of social parties. And it’s a quick way to meet lots of women and for the women to be introduced to lots of men, all in one place.
Hunte: Which is where Felicity would show up, asking questions.
Schaeffer: Part of this that I’m also interested in is the fantasies that foreign women usually have of life in the United States, and vice versa.
You know, men sort of think that U.S. women are much too feminist and too modern and too independent. And they think that they’re gonna find something very different in Russia, Latin America—you know, wherever it is—Asia. And so they often are surprised that women, um, are very strong, have strong personalities, they need certain things, and that they don’t want to usually live in rural areas.
Hunte: Did you peer into the dark heart of American masculinity?
Hunte: What’d you see when you looked—when you peered it into it? (Laughs.)
Schaeffer: Oh my God, I mean, so many insecurities! Given the way in which desire is so entwined with status and money, you know, it’s—it’s a sad structure, that sort of capitalist context in which certain people become no one if you don’t have some game.
I have this amazing interview with a guy who said to me something that really clarified things. He said, “You know, in the United States, I’m just the average Joe. But when I cross the border, I become Tom Cruise.”
It was hard, in some ways, and I felt really creepy. And then it was also sad, you know, to see that there’s so many lonely people that are just sort of in the shadows, um, that can’t meet anyone and just, like, really want to connect.
Schaeffer: And these women are just desperate to come to the United States. And that the men, in some ways, broker their ticket to getting here.
Hunte: Have you ever watched 90 Day Fiancé, or heard about it?
Schaeffer: Yes. I have watched some of the episodes, of course! (Laughs.)
Hunte: You watched it. Okay.
Schaeffer: It’s hard to watch too many.
Colt: (Over funky music.) I never thought I would get married. All my previous relationships have ended with me getting a broken heart. (The funky music continues under Hunte’s narration.)
Hunte: Watching 90 Day Fiancé, I got this feeling that, for a lot of the cast, they might actually believe that a shot at the American dream is all they have to offer in exchange for love. Here’s Colt, the guy who lives in Las Vegas.
Colt: (Over the funky music again.) After having struck out a few times online with American girls, I thought maybe I could search outside the country, maybe find a girl. (The music fades out.)
Hunte: But, as Americans put themselves on the international marriage market hoping to find someone more beautiful, more loyal, more grateful, if that love turns out not to be true, they also have the power to take that American dream away … Which brings me to one couple I think about a lot: Ashley and Jay.
Ashley: (Over soft-rock acoustic guitar.) My name is Ashley. I’m 31 years old, and I’m from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
Hunte: Ashley is in her 30s. She’s white, blond, pretty, and a mother of two from Mechanicsburg, a town in Pennsylvania where more than 90 percent of the residents are white.
While vacationing in Jamaica, she meets Jay, a Black, 20-year-old tattoo artist.
Ashley: (Over lightly techno music.) I went to Jamaica with a group of friends and family to a big wedding. And, um, one night we decided to go out to a bar, and that’s where I met Jay.
Hunte: Ashley says she’s been cheated on before, and Jay more or less admits that being faithful is hard for him. But when he proposes, she says yes. They file for the K-1 visa, and soon he’s on a plane, traveling to live with her in America.
But Ashley admits that she hasn’t really thought about what that might mean for Jay, to live in a mostly white suburb.
Ashley: (Over slightly tense music.) I’m hoping we don’t have to deal with any racial issues, but I’m also very naive to all of this.
Hunte: Ashley and Jay get married, but shortly after the wedding, she finds out he had sex with another woman. So she calls him on the phone to confront him.
Ashley: (The tense music continues, adding drama with each expletive.) If you show up at my house, the police will be waiting to deport your ass. I don’t give a f***. I do not give a f***. He has to sit and rot in jail until they deport his ass. I don’t give a f***.
Hunte: And, just like that, Ashley goes from being this naive white woman who doesn’t understand race in America to a white woman asking the police to remove her disappointing Black, immigrant husband from her life, and from her country.
Ashley: I don’t want him near me. I don’t even want him in this country. He’s here illegally. He needs to go back to Jamaica.
(Low percussive music plays.)
Hunte: Some of this ugliness—this icky gender and racial dynamics, the heartbreak—this is just classic reality-TV-show stuff. But this particular drama of the 90 days and the K-1 visa started way before reality TV.
Hunte: For one thing, I, you know, I just kind of looked at the Wikipedia history of the K-1 visa, and I was kind of surprised to see that [Chuckles.] the Vietnam War had something to do with it.
Schaeffer: Yeah. I mean, it actually has a lot longer history, I would say, than the Vietnam War.
Hunte: After the break, how love got turned into a visa application.
(A moment of synthesizer melody plays above the percussive music, followed by the break.)
(A quick, goofy musical flourish.)
Hunte: The journey to 90 Day Fiancé is a long and winding one. As much as it’s a story about love across borders, it’s also a mini-drama about who we think is worthy of marriage and citizenship, and who has the power to decide. Felicity Amaya Schaeffer—she’s the professor at UC Santa Cruz who did research on so-called romance tours—told us that one of the earliest immigration laws ever passed in the U.S. was about romance, or, at least, sex.
Schaeffer: From the very moment that the federal government became involved in immigration, you see the influence of biases of race.
Hunte: The law was called the Page Act, passed in 1875. It restricted the migration of Asian laborers to the United States for, quote, “immoral purposes.” And it was primarily enforced against Chinese immigrants—but, more specifically, Chinese women.
Schaeffer: If you were the wife of a wealthy Chinese merchant, you could come to the United States. But, if you were a lower-class woman, you could not come. And this has to do with trying to prevent laborers from migrating and bringing women that they thought would destroy the values of the United States.
Hunte: U.S. lawmakers assumed that poor Chinese women coming to the United States were coming here to be sex workers.
Schaeffer: This created some of the legislation that women had to have medical examinations before migrating.
Hunte: Why were they having them do medical exams?
Schaeffer: Chinese women were assumed to spread venereal diseases because they were assumed to be prostitutes. Women had to have that kind of medical exam before they were allowed entry.
(Light, ringing synthesizer music seems to travel back in time.)
Hunte: The law was eventually changed to allow more foreign women into the United States, but that’s because American men demanded it. Starting with the Philippines War in the late 1800s, American men were going all over the world, fighting wars and colonizing—and, in the meantime, meeting women they wanted to bring back to the U.S. and marry.
After World War II, thousands of American men wanted to bring women back from Europe and Asia, but couldn’t, because of immigration quotas. So Congress passed the War Brides Act.
Schaeffer: This was a kind of pathway for men to bring back wives. And there was, like, 300,000 women that came.
Hunte: It made it easier to bring the spouses of American military members back to the U.S. But the War Brides Act was only in effect for about three years—1945 to 1948. And as the Vietnam War began to wind down, American soldiers—who, once again, wanted to bring more foreign wives back to the U.S.—started demanding a more permanent solution.
Schaeffer: So 1970 was when the K-1 process was actually finalized.
Hunte: But the relatively clear, simple, and quick path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship offered by the K-1 visa has alarmed American politicians over the years, and led to panics about marriage fraud.
Schaeffer: There were all kinds of media accounts about these sort of marriage-ring frauds that were allowing people to come in from Havana, and all these subversive types that were using marriage as a way to sort of skirt the usual immigration structures and enter into the country. And I think during the wars, it was a more clear understanding of how people met, and the conditions through which people met.
Hunte: So the soldiers were going overseas, falling in love, bringing women back. Now, when in the absence of that, it’s like, “Wait, why are these women coming here?”
Schaeffer: Mhm, mhm! [Hunte laughs.] Yeah! Yeah. “What is their motivation for coming here?” I think that’s the next big phase, is already the presumption of fraud after the Vietnam War.
Senator Alan Simpson: We’re going to examine this issue of immigration marriage fraud.
Hunte: Resulting in things like this: a Senate committee hearing on marriage fraud in 1985. Here’s Senator Alan Simpson.
Simpson: We’re going to inquire into the nature and extent of this situation, determine whether we see but another way of gimmicking our generous—very generous—legal immigration laws.
Hunte: And this led to a new immigration law. It made the green card immigrants got after they got married conditional. You didn’t get a permanent green card until after you’d been married for at least two years.
Suspicion of immigrants continued well into the ’90s, but the narrative changed to one where immigrants were now an economic liability.
Schaeffer: Because, you know, that’s always the language about immigrants, right? That they’re a drain on the economy, that they’re always taking from and, you know, using these precious resources that should go to citizens.
Hunte: So the K-1 visa changed again. In 1996, President Clinton signed a new rule into law. Starting now, Americans who brought a spouse to the U.S. on the K-1 visa were now legally responsible for that person for 10 years.
Schaeffer: Even if they divorce, he is taking up responsibility to make sure that she can live—even without a job—for the remainder of 10 years while in this country, if she decides to stay.
Hunte: Wow. Yeah, that is—that is a huge shift.
Hunte: That’s huge.
Hunte: It sounds like it’s to discourage people from doing this, is what it sounds like.
Schaeffer: Yes. That is an entirely huge shift, and men came to me complaining about that [Laughs.] over and over again.
Hunte: As part of her research, Felicity spent a lot of time on listservs for men interested in marrying foreign women. When this rule was put into place, she watched as they began to freak out, asking each other about potential red flags.
Schaeffer: It was everything from, you know, ”She doesn’t want to have sex ’til we get married. Is this a red flag?” “Is she affectionate enough?” “Is she, uh, hot and sexy in bed?” Like, “Does she ask for money?” That was a big one that would come up.
And so, then, women, you know, didn’t have the benefit of this kind of community, but would often talk to me, like, “I feel, really, like I can’t ask him for things that I need, because he seems so suspicious of me.”
Schaeffer: So, you know, it really did affect, um, what they could say to each other, how they would read each other’s actions.
Hunte: Felicity says the threat of financial consequences for a bad marriage with a foreign spouse may have made these kinds of relationships even more tense.
Schaeffer: And so I think that part of that shift in the K-1 visa structure led to, actually—or maybe facilitated—more abusive relationships, because the men were so skeptical and sort of adopting the view of the state.
(A heavy synthesizer whistle plays over a windswept musical landscape.)
Hunte: In 2000, Anastasia King, a 19-year-old originally from Kyrgyzstan, was murdered by her American husband after she was brought to the U.S. on the K-1 visa. It’s impossible to say for certain whether the pressure and suspicion that increased after changes to the K-1 visa increased the level of violence in these kinds of relationships. But, in response to this abuse, Congress realized it also had to protect immigrant spouses. So it passed the International Marriage Brokerage Regulation Act, or IMBRA, in 2005.
Schaeffer: Where men have to provide criminal records, and women have to have their rights.
Hunte: I spoke to a couple of immigration attorneys who told me immigrant women are still afraid that, if they report their American husbands for abuse, they’ll be deported—though there are provisions within IMBRA and the Violence Against Women Act to protect them. Even still, women in the U.S. on the K-1 visa, separated from family and community and unable to legally work, are often left vulnerable.
Hunte: Today, as part of the K-1 application process, the foreign fiancé has to sit for an interview with an American consular official who’s trying to find out whether your relationship is real or a scam. You’re asked about your American partner’s birthday, education, family—but you’re also asked to maybe describe your engagement, or whether you’re planning to go on a honeymoon, or what kind of wedding you’re going to have. In other words, are you here for the right reasons? Do you really love this person?
(Heavy music plays.)
John, Colt’s cousin: How do you express your love to Colt?
Larissa: To show love? For me, it’s clean the house.
(The music continues under the narration.)
Hunte: Those interviews with consular officials are never caught on camera. But you can kind of get an idea of how they might go, watching friends and family on 90 Day Fiancé question the would-be foreign spouse. Here’s Colt’s cousin, John, asking Larissa to prove she loves Colt.
(The heavy music continues.)
John: You’re not just coming over here to marry my man for a green card, are ya?
Larissa: I’m with him because I love him.
(The music changes tone, like an investigative journalist intro on a late-night news show.)
Larissa: (In a confessional interview.) Honestly, John was acting like he’s policy or immigration officer. He was really rude to me.
(The news-show music fades out.)
Schaeffer: The United States is about choice and equality and democracy. So it’s interesting to think about how romance sort of sits in for all of these other values of a democracy. Like, are you capable of consenting to this? Or, if you come from a poor background, are you forced into this because you have no other recourse? That you really choose this person because you love them, and not for any other reasons. So it’s this sort of divorcing of economic questions from romantic ones.
(Soft, pensive electric guitar plays over lo-fi electronica. The word Lovesick repeats periodically, like a whisper.)
Hunte: So, Julia, what do you think?
Longoria: I mean, [Laughs.] this is, like, what’s so appealing and repulsing about reality TV, right? Watching this desperation on all sides play out like a car accident, you know? Are they here for the right reasons? Will they actually be truly in love?
Hunte: You know, there are, like, some couples on the show where it’s kind of obvious that the foreign fiancé is, like, only here for that person, and it kind of plays out in these funny ways. Like, I’m thinking about this one couple from the most recent season—Jovi and Yara—and Yara is from the Ukraine, and Jovi is an American guy from New Orleans. And they’re having a fight on the street, and, at one point, Jovi says, “Oh, what? You’re just going to go back to the Ukraine?” and she just looks at him and says, “Yeah! I’ll go back. I had a really nice life there!” And you can see that she’s, like, not here on a lark. She’s not here because she thinks that the United States is better than the Ukraine. She actually, you know—and she knows there’s a stereotype about eastern European women, and she’s rejecting that. She’s just literally here to be with this guy. So I just also like this show because it’s always questioning your assumptions about people and what their motivations might be.
Longoria: Yeah! And it kind of raises the question, like, what are the “right reasons” to be in this kind of relationship—
Longoria: —or, really, any, right? (Chuckles.)
Hunte: And why does the American government even care that much? [Both laugh.] You know, if people are scamming, let them scam each other and fall in love. That’s all I have to say! (Laughs.)
(Upbeat, bubblegum techno music plays up.)
Hunte: I already think I know the answer to this question, but, Julia, do you think you will watch 90 Day Fiancé? (Bursts out laughing, and Longoria laughs too.)
Longoria: I mean, you watched it so I don’t have to!
Hunte: Alright! Fair enough, fair enough. (Laughs lightly.)
(The bubblegum music plays up.)
Gabrielle Berbey: This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and me, Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells, Emily Botein, and Julia Longoria. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Special thanks to Maeve Higgins.
And extra-special thanks to Matt Collette, who helped deliver this show into the world. This is his last episode. Matt, we will miss you! Go forth and conquer! We can’t wait to hear what you’ll make next.
Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez and Alvin Melathe. The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The music, now embellished with a high-pitched whistle, plays up to a resolution, and then out.)