I love you. You’re perfect. Now, we need a visa.

by Jacki Granet

When I became an immigration attorney, something happened that I wasn’t quite expecting. I found myself curious about the immigration aspects of strangers’ lives. From the famous actress on the Oscars’ red carpet who is speaking with that lovely accent to the athlete from Eastern Europe joining the NBA to the random bike messenger with a brogue, I wanted to know the path that led them to the US. It was more than that, too. When Justin Bieber was arrested (multiple times) my first thought was, “How will this affect his immigration status?” When George Clooney became engaged to a British woman, my mind immediately went to what kind of a visa would she get (and then shortly thereafter to, “Guess my chances are gone”).

Needless to say, I love all things pop culture, and that includes reality television. So, when Joseph sent me a link to TLC’s 90 Day Fiance, I was immediately intrigued.

90 Day Fiance is a reality television program which follows six couples on their journey from long-distance romance to their impending marriage in the US. The show is named after the K-1 visa, commonly known as the “fiancé(e) visa,” which allows a US citizen to bring the foreign-national fiancé(e) to the US in valid status with the intention to marry in ninety days.

In season 2 of 90 Day Fiance, there are two standout couples for me: Chelsea/Yamir and Danielle/Mohamed. These two couples immediately grabbed my attention because, aside from my unhealthy love of reality television stars, they are polar opposites. Chelsea and Yamir represent the great, international love story. She traveled to Nicaragua to teach English and fell in love with a local pop star who is considered the Justin Timberlake of Nicaragua. (Sign me up for that teaching program!) Their love feels real in a completely honest way. To say that I would be devastated if they split up is an understatement. (I think I need to watch less reality television…)

Danielle and Mohamed are also an interesting couple, especially to watch on TV. She is a forty-one-year-old mother of four from Ohio and he is a twenty-six-year-old man from Tunisia. There is a large age gap and aside from talking online, they have only met once when Danielle poured her savings into a trip to Tunisia (seriously!). One truly heartbreaking moment came when Mohamed was traveling to the US for the first time and Danielle was unable to get ahold of him. As a viewer, I feared the worst for Danielle. After a few moments of strategically-timed reality TV suspense, Danielle found him, in his trusty brown leather jacket. That was a close one!  

The show itself unfortunately does not really delve into the legal aspects of the K-1 visa, but that’s why I’m here!

The requirements for a K-1 visa are:

  1. Be a fiancé(e) of a US citizen;
  2. Seek to enter the US solely to conclude a valid marriage with the petitioner (i.e., the US citizen); and
  3. Marry within ninety days after entry (which timeframe actually provides the right amount of dramatic tension for reality television, so thank you USCIS!).

While this may seem like very few requirements, it is not to say that the approval of a K-1 visa happens overnight. First, the United States citizen must file a Form I-129F with US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) in the US on behalf of the foreign-national fiancé(e). When filing this petition, the US citizen must provide proof that there is a bona fide intention to marry within ninety days of entry; that there are no legal impediments to marriage such as the foreign national fiancé(e) being underage or a relative; and that the US citizen and foreign national fiancé(e) have previously met in person within two years of filing the petition. Sometimes, as in the case of Brett and Daya, another couple on the show, that means saving up and traveling as far as The Philippines to meet for just a week.

If USCIS approves the petition, they send it to the National Visa Center (NVC), the government entity tasked with the pre-processing of immigrant visas before consular processing at a US Embassy/Consulate abroad. The foreign national must then attend an appointment for a medical examination and thereafter an interview at the US Embassy/Consulate where the foreign national resides. During this stage, the K-1 visa applicant can also schedule an appointment for any children (who must be unmarried and under age twenty-one) to obtain a K-2 visa, which allows the child to enter the US with the parent. (No couples did this in the show, however.) The Department of State has excellent information on what the foreign national should bring to the interview and what to expect at the interview.

From the salacious previews of 90 Day Fiance it seems that perhaps not all couples will make it down the aisle. What happens then? Well, if the foreign national and the US citizen do not marry within ninety days, the foreign national (and any K-2 children) must leave the US promptly. If they do marry (go Chelsea and Yamir…yes, I am already playing favorites), that is still not the end of the immigration road. In order to become a permanent resident of the US, the foreign national must file a Form I-485, Adjustment of Status.

Although I wished 90 Day Fiance focused just a little more on the immigration aspect, watching the emotional adjustment to life in the US is also fascinating. Some of the foreign nationals have never been to the US and have established, comfortable lives in their native country (like Yamir). Additionally, as we all can imagine it must be incredibly difficult to move from a rural town in Brazil to a small town in Florida (like Cassia did to be with Jason). Everything is different—the food, architecture, people—and it’s obviously a huge adjustment (which, of course, makes for great television).

The show is quite fascinating when touching on those cultural differences and the hurdles these couples need to overcome to start a happy, healthy life together. I, for one, am dying to know what will happen to Danielle and Mohamed!