The questions I’d get on first dates with American guys would often start innocently enough.
“How long have you lived in New York?” the men would ask, after I told them I was born and raised in Finland.
“Coming up to four years now,” I’d say.
“Wow!” they’d say, their face lighting up, “So you’ve been here for a while.”
I’d smile. That response usually means they’re interested. The longer you’ve been in a country, the more likely it is you’ll stay. But within a few follow-up questions, the breezy chitchat would often begin to resemble an interrogation, one I’ve seen play out at the border and at U.S. embassies.
“So wait, what visa are you on?” the guy would ask, beginning his search for a red (and white and blue) flag.
“It’s a student visa, the F1,” I’d say.
“But you graduated a year ago, so … how does that work?” they’d usually ask, knowing I’ve recently wrapped up my master’s program in creative writing.
For my dates, these questions might’ve seemed like casual conversation. But to me, they’d always felt as if someone was asking if I was rushing to get married.
“Well, you get to work here for a year after you graduate, on something called the OPT,” I’d explain. “That’s what I’m on right now.”
“And then what happens?” they’d ask.
They’d know they were onto something. I’d get nervous, and my date would get suspicious. What was really in my interest to disclose? In America, one’s immigration status communicates so much. It’s often shorthand for wealth, acclaim, freedom. Sometimes it’s even a sign you’ve been married before.
So I’d play the game.
“Well, as a full-time writer,” I’d say, “I qualify for something called the O-1. It’s a visa for people of extraordinary ability. Justin Bieber is on it and so is Hugh Jackman. Most people think Melania Trump married for her green card, but she actually got her visa because she proved herself to be extraordinary in modeling.”
The guys would laugh and so would I. In a few sentences, I’d show myself to be a model immigrant, a catch. Over four years, I’d learned that any instability in my immigration status immediately translated to American guys being less interested in me. I’d decided it was best to say that I “qualify for the O-1 visa” rather than get into specifics. It was too risky to explain that, once my F1 visa would expire and I’d need to submit my O-1 application, I’d have to spend nearly $8,000 on legal fees and provide the government hundreds of pages of evidence to make a case for myself. Or how easy it would be for one adjudication officer to deny my entire case, giving me just 10 days to leave the country.
Before I moved to America, I never saw immigration and dating as inherently intertwined. Here, a steady immigration status seems to be a prerequisite for a stable relationship. Generally I’ve dated liberal, big-city, educated people who believe in open immigration. Yet when it comes to their dating lives, they often resemble vigilant border-control agents. Even on a first date, there’s suspicion that a foreigner could have impure intentions.
My American friends have shared stories of how they’ve blocked people on Tinder the minute they’ve gotten an inkling that a prospect might be after a green card (officially known as a permanent resident card). My non-American friends, by contrast, tell me about their dating app engagement rocketing after they erase their nationalities from their bios or adopt a more American-sounding name. I suppose both sides are trying to protect themselves: No one wants to date someone who might be leaving.
As it becomes harder to immigrate to the United States, the idea of the green-card marriage looms ever larger. TV shows like “90-Day Fiancé” perpetuate an image of immigrants who will go to extreme lengths to secure a green card from a relationship. Unequal immigration statuses become a power imbalance, similar to those created by a large income gap or age difference.
Before I moved to New York at age 23, I lived in Berlin, where I dated an American guy. Two months into our long-distance relationship, after he’d gone back to the States, he told me we could always figure out our future by getting married.
“For the green card, you know,” he said with a wink.
“You don’t need to do it,” I told him. “I don’t think we should rush into it.”
“I’m just saying we can figure it out if we need to,” he said.
I smiled wide. The gesture made me feel loved.
Back then, I didn’t know I was also being tested.
Three months later, when I visited New York to see him and tour Columbia University, where I’d been accepted for graduate school and would begin my studies under a four-year F1 visa – a visa I’d earned on my merits – he told me he wanted to end things.
Later that night, he yelled at me, saying I’d used him. He implied I’d been in it for the green card. There were many things that contributed to the dissolution of our relationship, but it was shocking to see how easily my efforts to move to the United States to be with him could be reduced to a manipulative scheme. We had been nowhere near marriage – and I’d never pressured him into it – yet the idea of an ulterior motive remained.
The longer I’ve lived in America, the more I’ve begun to understand where these men are coming from. It’s easy to become worried when immigration is a constant source of tension in the news; it’s a discourse with harsh voices, ones that can seep into the mind even if we don’t agree with them.
I don’t doubt that fake marriages happen. Still, when I look at my foreign friends in America – most of whom married their long-term partners and are genuinely happy in those unions – I don’t see fraud. I see real love. And yet, because of America’s cultural obsession with the deceptive green card marriage, I know my friends’ intentions will be questioned.
For nearly a year, I’ve put my life on hold as I’ve worked endlessly to pay off legal fees, collect the needed evidence and wait for the government to decide on my O-1 visa.
Throughout the process, I stopped dating. I’ve felt too unstable, too on the edge. An American friend offered his hand and we joked about spending those legal fees – the $8,000 – on an epic gay party instead, celebrating our challenging of traditional marriage norms.
Still, I want my wedding to be special. I want to be seen as someone who takes that oath of marriage seriously. It might be my Nordic upbringing, but I believe in equal partnerships. I realize now that the surest way I can show genuine love to an American – the kind they, too, will believe as real – is to secure my own visa.
A few months ago, my O-1 application was approved. Afterward I had a celebratory Big Mac and Diet Coke. This is America, I thought. There is freedom in being self-made. I can renew my O-1 visa indefinitely, and that allows me to plan a future in America. The visa is a reminder that I can be extraordinary, and have the life that I want, while single.
I feel intense relief – not only for myself but also for my future husband. I won’t need to rush into marriage; the visa question won’t be an issue. Nowadays, I tell my dates I have a O-1 before they can even ask about it.
I’ve worked extremely hard for my visa, but I also know I am privileged to have secured it. Many stories don’t end as well as mine.
Next, I’m going to apply for the EB1 green card (for extraordinary ability). It’ll be an even harder process. But I think of it as double armor. I don’t want my dating life to resemble a never-ending immigration interview, where I have to make a case for myself, hoping the person across the table sees me as extraordinary enough to let through. I deserve to have a say in that, too.