Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

Fraud Everywhere

Elisa Gonzalez

On July 18, 2019, I dialed the National Visa Center 53 times. If the queue was full — it often was — the automated system played a short message, then ended the call. If it wasn’t, the system played a short message and placed me on hold. After two and a half hours, the person I eventually reached couldn’t solve my problem. Afterwards, I wept as hard as a despairing toddler. 

I am an American citizen, by birthright and blood. On April 8, 2016, I married a citizen of the United Kingdom. He had been living in the U.S. for two and a half years, and we’d been dating for one. We wouldn’t have gotten married had his visa not been set to expire. A friend who worked for the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) warned me never to tell an immigration official that our cheerful, efficient City Hall ceremony had been occasioned by the opportunity to gain permanent legal status for my husband. We were madly in love, the story had to go, and therefore we married. Any other rationale would endanger our application, making us look potentially fraudulent. So we participated in the pervasive fiction that love is the only motivation for marriage — and never, say, health insurance, lower taxes, cheaper rent, living in one country rather than another. 

Before we married, I understood my husband’s plan to immigrate as part of the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: to choose a partner freely, and to live with that partner in my country of birth and residence. I was naive. I had no idea how hard the path would be, or how many years of my life would be consumed by it. Redialing. Being on hold. Paperwork.

Which has a greater claim to reality — the life you have on paper, or the one you have in the world, made possible by its attendant papers? The question has already been answered, and not by you. By the time I was calling and calling the Visa Center, we’d spent more than two years mastering the intricate details of the immigration process, and more than a year making decisions on how to best collate our paper life to meet the requirements of the process. I’d signed a form assuming financial responsibility for my husband until he left the U.S. or became a citizen, even if we broke up. We’d mailed USCIS a massive packet of further forms, affidavits from friends and family, an album of photos of us together, and printouts of our shared travel itineraries. 

My husband would not gain permanent residency until the end of January 2020, by which point we’d spent nineteen consecutive months living in different countries. We are no longer together. When the process was still dragging on — when I would panic-dream of choking on a thick roll of inky paper — I blamed the dull brutality of bureaucracy for a large part of our relationship’s gradual fracturing. 

Now this explanation seems both true and false — the kind of answer one can never give on a form or to a skeptical interviewer. There was the assault of paperwork, but there was also the way that the relationship had to accommodate suspicion of its own legitimacy. All marriages are throuples: the third partner is the state, paranoid and heartless. In the “green card marriage,” intense government scrutiny takes this dynamic to an extreme. It’s possible to start seeing yourself and your relationship through the ungenerous eyes of officialdom, as if you might at any moment uncover the fraud you didn’t know your life contained. 

But fraud is everywhere in modern love: in the Vows columns; in Instagram wedding carousels; in the stories lovers tell each other, of each other. Even if you acknowledge myriad structural constraints on your behavior, there is still the temptation to believe that you choose your intimacies more freely than you choose anything else. The truth requires admitting something that threatens more than a soft-focus image of marriage or romantic commitment — admitting something that threatens an image of the self.

Elisa Gonzalez is the author of Grand Tour (2023). She lives in Brooklyn.