Papers Are Power: How the Undocumented Fight for Love and Security
Anna Lekas Miller Refutes the Xenophobic Myths Underpinning “Green Card Marriages”
Every American who has ever fallen in love with a foreigner has been told to be careful that they aren’t being swindled for a green card. Meanwhile, any immigrant who has ever fallen in love with an American has been forced to bend over backward to prove that they aren’t swindling them—and while over the past twenty years marriage rates have declined in the United States to an all-time low, marriage remains one of the only ways that an undocumented person can adjust their status.
“I’m a millennial. I don’t want to get married,” Maria Lopez, a twenty-seven-year-old satirist and content creator who runs the Instagram page ytienepapeles—or, in English, “Does he have papers?”—told me, when we met up at a bubble tea shop in San Jose, California. “But these systems are forcing me!”
Even though Maria grew up in San Jose, she was born in Mexico City—and while she had been protected by DACA since the Obama administration, as soon as Trump was elected, she realized that DACA’s days might be numbered. “We were high school sweethearts, so I hadn’t really been thinking about my status, or anything like that,” she remembered. But as soon as she shared her anxiety about protecting herself in the long-term, her boyfriend told her that he was not interested in having those conversations.While marriage fraud undeniably exists, there are far fewer discussions about how papers are power.
“I thought I was never going to find love, because that just isn’t real for immigrants,” she continued, reminding me of my own realization that a wedding with everyone that I loved in the same room would be a fantasy. Maria started creating content to process her own frustration about dating as an undocumented woman—first poetry, and later, memes. “We aren’t going to fix these systems by crying about them,” she said, smiling. “So, I try to laugh at them instead.” One of my favorite posts from her account shows a cartoon of three girls putting on makeup, but Maria has written over it: “My three personalities getting ready in the morning: wanting love, wanting dick, wanting papeles.”
Little by little, more women started reaching out to her, telling her that the page made them laugh and feel like they weren’t alone. “A lot of people ask me how long they should wait before they should tell someone about their status,” she continued—and I am immediately curious about which date is the right date to have a conversation about papers.
“I ask them where they are writing me from,” she told me, explaining that her answer might be different, depending on if they’re in a state like Texas or Arizona, or a state like California. Safety always comes first, especially in a charged political environment; but even in a state like California, dating as an undocumented person can be a dangerous game. “I have definitely seen men who use status as a power play,” Maria explained, saying that if one person has papers and another does not, it is easy for the former to threaten to call ICE or to take custody of the children, leaving their partner with no legal recourse. “A lot of the older women I talk to think that they are only being abused if someone is hitting them,” she continued. “I try to tell them that this is abuse, too.”
Meanwhile, popular culture, whether it is the producers on 90 Day Fiancé or the politicians who decide our laws, persistently cast immigrants in need of a green card as criminals. While marriage fraud undeniably exists, there are far fewer discussions about how papers are power, and an unequal power dynamic means that one person in a relationship will always be able to control the fate of the other. It forces people into commitments that they are not ready for, at best, and lays the foundation for an abusive marriage at worst.
Ironically, “undocu-cuties,” as Maria lovingly calls them, often end up only falling in love with people who understand the struggle—people who are also undocumented. “Some of them say love is love,” Maria reflected. “Others are optimistic that the government will do something for them.” But in our millennial lifetimes, the only reprieve for undocumented people that has even come close to amnesty has been DACA, which even at its best only protects people who came to the United States as children and costs $495 to renew every two years. Originally, Obama introduced it as a stop-gap measure until there was a pathway to citizenship. Ten years after it was first introduced, there is still no path to citizenship, and DACA itself could be repealed at any time, depending on the political leadership in Congress and the White House.
“My advice? Don’t romanticize the struggle,” she continued. Maria understands the many reasons why people without papers might be drawn toward one another, beyond merely falling in love. Some are wary of the power dynamics of dating a citizen. Others prefer to be with someone who has stood in their shoes. Nevertheless, this isn’t for Maria. “We grow up on telenovelas and assume that love has to be difficult in order for it to be real,” she continued. “But you deserve to love and be protected. You deserve to follow a career that fulfills you.”
Ordinarily, people think long and hard about marriage—so much so that more and more people are choosing to opt out of the institution all together. However, when papers are a part of the decision, it can force your hand, putting unnecessary pressure on a relationship. Marrying a citizen doesn’t always work, either. Karina has been married to Kevin for fourteen years and is still stateless.
Ava and Cecilia are both US citizens, but it has not helped either of them get green cards for José and Hugo, who are each still waiting out their ten-year bans in Mexico. Mohammed had to fight the Muslim ban just to bring Amal to the United States. For a long time, I gave up on the idea of having a future with Salem in my country for the same reason. Even without Trump, sponsoring his green card from abroad could take longer than two years, with no guarantees.
“At the end of the day, marriage is a contract that can make your life easier,” Maria continued, reminding me of the weeks when I contemplated eloping for the sake of an easy marriage certificate. “But you do kind of lose the romance.” Filling out reams of paperwork, pulling a number at Hackney Town Hall, or turning over your most private communication to government authorities does make it feel as if these systems are trying to suck us dry, stealing any joy that we might have left.
It is invasive and infuriating—especially when citizen friends around you are planning beautiful weddings without these anxieties, merely stressing over which family members can’t be in the same room together or which florist is too expensive, rather than whether ICE, the Home Office, or any other immigration authority is going to stop their happily ever after in its tracks.
So maybe at some point we “accidentally” send a sex tape to the Home Office or shamelessly forward our entire texting history to the USCIS. We are fighting to be with the people that we love, and for this reason, an invasion of privacy for some is a grand romantic gesture for the rest of us. Bureaucracy—and the absurdity of the kinds of documents that are required to prove your love for one another—is demoralizing. But when those documents are the pages of your love story, assembling them in a file folder with color-coded descending tabs is the most romantic act in the world.
Excerpted from Love Across Borders: Passports, Papers, and Romance in a Divided World by Anna Lekas Miller. Copyright © 2023. Available from Algonquin Books.