90 Day Fiancé Is Everyone’s Guilty Pleasure. But Is It Exploiting Immigrants?

The wildly popular TLC television franchise captivates audiences by showcasing couples in love. It also mimics harmful tropes.

Shamira Ibrahim
ZORA
Published in
11 min readOct 20, 2020

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Photo illustration; Image source: TLC

Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”

Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.

Every show introduces us to a new crop of foreign nationals working their way through the labyrinthine U.S. immigration system for our entertainment. The Americans on the show allegedly receive a nominal appearance fee (reps for TLC tell ZORA that they are compliant with all relevant laws related to compensating participants). The stereotypical narratives that accompany each couple follow this formula: a “will-they-or-won’t-they” story arc, a look into an exoticized culture, and an “opposites attract” plot twist that colors every pairing. The franchise is entertaining and chaotic, with colonial fascinations and familiar beats of beloved American sitcoms. It has also become a ratings hit for TLC. The latest season of Happily Ever After? premiered to 4.1 million viewers.

Created by producer Matt Sharp, the show has remained apolitical as public discourse around draconian immigration policy escalated to a fever pitch over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations. TLC and 90 Day Fiancé strove to separate themselves from an increasingly polarizing conversation with Sharp explaining on the Reality Life with Kate Casey podcast that the franchise…

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