I Lived The Real-Life '90 Day Fiancé.' Here's What They Don't Show You.

The show made it look so easy; how did it go so terribly wrong for us?
Tiago and the author on the day he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
Tiago and the author on the day he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
Photo Courtesy Of Kelli Ferguson

You’ve probably heard of the hit reality TV show “90 Day Fiancé.” The program, aired by TLC, follows American men and women on their quest to marry foreigners they’ve fallen in love with ― usually online.

I first stumbled across the show at the height of my Brazilian beau’s battle with the U.S. immigration system. By that time, we had already applied for and been denied the K-1 visa ― the very same visa made famous by the show. If approved, the beneficiary is allowed to enter the United States, but must marry the petitioner within 90 days of entry. We were prepared to do just that, but we had no idea what was in store for us.

What followed was a five-year saga spanning three countries, costing us thousands of dollars and lots of heartache. The show made it look so easy; how did it go so terribly wrong for us?

It all started in 2008. I was 20 years old and had just arrived in Granada, Spain, for a study abroad program. I met Tiago a few nights after arriving in Spain while out for tapas and vino. He’s from Brazil, and we bonded over the fact that we were both learning Spanish. We hit it off and ended up going on our first official date a few days later. He was sweet, funny, intelligent and very handsome. The more I got to know him, the harder I fell.

As my year in Spain was quickly fading away, we started to talk about the future. We honestly never entertained the idea of breaking up. We knew we had to say goodbye, but we were determined that it would be more of an hasta luego.

After enduring six months of dating long-distance, I headed to Brazil for a much-needed visit. By the end of that monthlong trip I had new friends and family, a nice tan and a shiny new engagement ring. But we still weren’t sure what would come next. I had to go back to the U.S. and finish college, and he couldn’t exactly come with me. He’d have to apply for a tourist visa, a work visa or … what about that 90-day fiancé visa?

Upon returning to the U.S., I spent every free second researching immigration options. Our best bet was to apply for the K-1 fiancé visa, just like on the TV show. I figured it wouldn’t be hard to prove our relationship was real since it really was! We had so many pictures, passport stamps, emails, Skype logs, cards and letters to prove it. We filled out the 13-page “Petition for Alien Fiancé,” wrote a check for $340 and sent it off to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Easy peasy ― or so I thought.

Fast forward a few months and it was time for Tiago’s interview at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In preparation for the interview, we filled out the DS-160 Non-immigrant Visa Application and paid the $265 filing fee. Tiago had to get a medical examination done, which cost $180. We also had to prove that I could financially support Tiago in the U.S. so that he wouldn’t become a “public charge.” I was a broke college student, so we asked my parents to fill out an affidavit of support promising to support us if we could not support ourselves.

“When he finally called, he told me he didn’t get the visa. And just like that, my world came crashing down.”

Tiago flew by himself to Rio de Janeiro to go to the interview at the U.S. Consulate. I remember waiting by my computer all day for him to sign in to Skype to give me the good news. The hours dragged on and on. When he finally called, he told me he didn’t get the visa. And just like that, my world came crashing down.

Tiago was denied for a minor incident on his record in Spain from 2008. Long story short, Tiago’s friends got into a street fight with two strangers. Tiago and another friend were trying to break it up when the police arrived. They were all taken to the station, but released within a few hours. That’s it.

This was something I knew about and we were forthcoming about it on his application. He caused no harm to anyone involved. We never thought this was something he’d be denied over.

Three months after Tiago’s visa was denied, I went to see him in Brazil to try to figure out what the hell we were going to do. We tried to make the best of it by going out, visiting friends and family and enjoying time together. But the fear and uncertainty of the future was looming like a dark, stormy cloud over our heads. The new plan we formulated was for me to move to Brazil as soon as I graduated and we’d get married. They can’t deny us if we’re married, can they?

We followed through on our plan and got married in Tiago’s hometown in April of 2011. We took our sweet time to start up his immigration process again because we were still reeling from the first denial.

Life in Brazil was harder than I could have ever imagined, but the reality of the situation was that I didn’t know when I’d be going home, if ever. So I hunkered down and learned to love the language, the food, the people and the culture. That being said, the violence and corruption was rampant and it was hard not to live in fear. We were working really hard to save up for another round of immigration paperwork, but we were barely making ends meet.

After two long and stressful years in Brazil, we were finally ready to get back in the game. With the help of my parents, we hired an immigration attorney. It was a $6,000 investment, but it was the best thing we ever did.

Our attorney, Kate, was extremely knowledgeable and so supportive. We finally felt like we had someone in our corner who could help us navigate the complex U.S. immigration system. We filed the I-130 Petition for Alien Relative ($420), completed another medical exam ($180) and gathered evidence to prove our marriage was legitimate.

Tiago’s interview at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro was scheduled for September 2013, and this time, I would be going with him. Our attorney warned us that we would be denied at the interview for the same reason Tiago’s fiancé visa was denied the first time around. After the denial, we could file a I-601 Waiver for Grounds of Inadmissibility which was pretty much our last shot.

The day of Tiago’s interview, I was sick to my stomach. I already knew we were going to be denied, but the whole process was extremely nerve-wracking. I couldn’t believe how cold and rude the American immigration officer was. I know their job is to ensure the safety of our nation and to control who is coming in, but it feels absolutely horrendous to have your life under their microscope.

We provided so many intimate details of our lives just to watch the officer rifle through our love letters, pictures, cards and memories as if they weren’t real. She never once looked me in the eye. She focused solely on the fight, asking if my parents knew about it (they did) and asking if they approve of Tiago anyway (they do). The whole thing lasted about 10 minutes. Denied. I knew that was coming, but it still stung.

We immediately filed the I-601 Waiver for Grounds of Inadmissibility ($585), which we had been preparing in the months leading up to Tiago’s interview. By submitting the document, we were requesting for his “ground of inadmissibility” — the reason he was denied — to be waived. For that to happen, the U.S. citizen must prove that he or she would suffer extreme hardship if his or her alien relative is denied admission to the United States.

I had to prove that I would suffer unimaginable consequences if Tiago wasn’t able to live in the United States with me. Some of the factors the USCIS will consider when determining extreme hardship are health conditions requiring treatment in the U.S., financial consideration like a decline in the standard of living, lower quality education options or the disruption of a current educational program, separation from a spouse or children, language barriers, valid fears of persecution or physical harm, etc.

Living 6,000 miles away from my home, family and friends was not considered extreme enough on its own. Leaving my husband behind and living our lives in two separate countries would also not be extreme enough.

I was scared. I knew I was facing extreme hardship, but looking at this list, I didn’t know if my suffering would be considered extreme enough for Tiago to be granted a waiver. I didn’t have any serious medical conditions. I had just graduated from college before I moved to Brazil, so I didn’t have to disrupt my education or leave behind a career. I didn’t have any children to leave behind or bring to Brazil to face hardships. And after years of living in Brazil, I was no longer facing a language barrier.

But I knew in my heart that we should be granted this waiver for the amount of pain and suffering we were going through. I wrote an 11-page personal statement outlining the decline in standard of living I was facing. As two adults working full-time jobs, we were able to pay the rent and put food on the table and that was it. I didn’t buy an article of clothing for four years. Not even a pair of socks or underwear.

We also took pictures of our neighborhood to show the poverty and destitution that surrounded us. We included pictures of the black mold that covered the walls of our small studio apartment no matter how hard we tried to get rid of it. We added pay stubs, bills, our rental agreement, bank statements, medical paperwork, a country-condition report and newspaper articles detailing the crime rates in Brazil and our area.

I spent every waking moment outside of my workday racking my brain, trying to come up with more ways to prove extreme hardship. It became an obsession. I lived, ate and breathed the waiver process.

Nine months later, we got the news we had been hoping and praying for. Our waiver was approved! On Aug. 9, 2014, after 1,307 days in Brazil and nearly five years of immigration woes, we landed in the U.S., finally home.

I wish “90 Day Fiancé” would show more of what it really takes to get approved for a visa ― the thousands of dollars applicants spend, the stacks of evidence needed to prove a legitimate relationship. There’s so much time, money, stress and work that goes into it.

On the show, much of the drama surrounds couples whose relationships are deemed to be less about true love and more about the green card. This all-too-familiar stereotype is one that follows many binational couples. What is easy to forget is that marriage to an American citizen does not guarantee an automatic green card or citizenship. The U.S. government ultimately gets to decide if your significant other will be granted entry to the United States or not. Being engaged, married or even having U.S. citizen children together does not mean you will be approved. In fact, many U.S. citizens are forced to live in exile in order to keep their families together.

The vast majority of couples who undergo this arduous journey through the U.S. immigration system are in it for true love. It would be difficult for a fabricated relationship to hold up under the intense scrutiny of the visa process. Take it from me ― it’s certainly not as easy as they make it look on TV. Tiago and I faced many obstacles along the way, but those challenges only made our love grow stronger. We leaned on each other during those hard times and fought to be together when the odds were against us.

In September 2018, Tiago was naturalized as a U.S. Citizen and we are officially done with the U.S. immigration system forever. We are planning our first trip back to Brazil to visit beloved family and friends after five long years and we couldn’t be happier.

Kelli Ferguson is the host of “Love Beyond Borders,” a podcast about immigration stories and intercultural relationships. Her passion for language and culture has taken her around the world and ultimately led to a career teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees in the Midwest. Tune in to the “Love Beyond Borders” podcast and connect with Kelli on Instagram.

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