90 Day Fiancé–A How-To on U.S. Immigration and Life?

90 Day Fiancé, the flagship television series of the juggernaut franchise on TLC, introduces viewers to a diverse cast of couples, all of whom have one major goal in common: One-half of the couple seeks permission to remain permanently in the United States based on the other’s U.S. citizenship. This show centers on a very real part of U.S. immigration law: the K-1 visa. Known colloquially as the “fiancé visa,” a K-1 visa allows foreign individuals to move to the United States to live with their U.S. citizen partners but requires them to get married within 90 days or else the foreign partners must leave. Once legally hitched, foreign spouses can apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) based on marriage.

While the episodes focus primarily on interpersonal drama, this guilty pleasure has much to teach us about navigating relationships within and outside of our families and even about U.S. immigration law. Here are a few key takeaways.

Communication Is Key

It’s essential for couples to communicate openly and honestly with each other in order to enjoy a harmonious life together. While the stakes are lower in the workplace than when one has crossed the ocean for love, the importance of effective communication applies to all relationships, including with coworkers.

Cultural or linguistic barriers can impede understanding. The couples grapple over fundamental life decisions such as whether to get married, whether to have a baby, whether one should convert to the other’s religion, the role of extended family in their lives, and their expectations for the other’s behavior. Some of the couples rely on translation apps on their smartphones, while others bring in a trusted mediator for tense conversations. We also see the pitfalls of relying on an interpreter who is biased toward one person or the other or has a stake in the outcome.

Just like we navigate synchronous and asynchronous communication in the post-pandemic workplace, we witness how the couples’ conflicts and decision-making processes are impacted as they rely on text messages; video calls; phone calls; or, my personal favorite, showing up unannounced in the other’s home country for an unhinged confrontation. 

Respect Is Essential

When two people come from different cultural backgrounds, learning about each other’s social norms and beliefs helps them build respect for each other and navigate conflict. Whether they are bickering about the appropriateness of a woman leaving the house in a sleeveless top or debating whether the alcoholic older brother must move out, the couples who suspend judgment to understand the other’s point of view make more progress in resolving their disagreements with mutually acceptable compromises. 

Immigration Is a Hurdle

In contrast to most other shows in which immigration law is never mentioned (even when there is a character who is foreign) or appears so simple and serendipitous that green cards arrive in the mail unsolicited, it is refreshing to see the one show on television that displays the uncertainty, expense, delay, and fear that are common to many legal immigrants to the United States.   

Most of the couples face the loss of one partner’s income because of the move but not just because the job hunt is tough. Just as they have typically depleted their finances with frequent international travel, legal bills, and wedding planning, the couples face a long, uncertain wait for the newly arrived fiancé to get work authorization, even after entering with a valid visa. 

Many an HR professional would recognize the issue—U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cannot issue employment authorization documents (EADs) (aka work permits) nearly fast enough, and willing, available, would-be employees stand on the sidelines waiting months for their work permits to arrive so they can complete an I-9 with a new employer.

I enjoy peeking into the lives of the newest aspiring Americans as they tackle expensive, confusing immigration paperwork and try to exert control over each other in these uncertain times. I wager that all of us have something to learn from these couples as they pursue their own version of the American dream.

Loren Locke is a partner at FordHarrison.

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