Sex and the Citizenship Process

Why people keep sending nudes to immigration authorities

By Tanvi Misra

Art By Braulio Amado

An illustration of people looking uncomfortable in explicit photos

Sexts. Suggestive photos. Saucy videos. More than you might think, this kind of intimate ephemera ends up on the desks of immigration officers vetting marriages between U.S. citizens and noncitizens, forever to be archived in the cabinets of American bureaucracy. It happens often enough that some immigration officers have taken to calling these materials — sent in as marriage bona fides — “boner fides” in jest. 

Lawyers and immigration officers have tons of anecdotes about mixed-status couples sending in inappropriate materials as part of their green card applications. Ron Abramson, an immigration lawyer who practices in Manchester, New Hampshire, told me about an incident from a decade ago when his clients sent him what was essentially a sex tape: “They got a DVD made on their honeymoon and it even had the music … it was basically like soft porn,” he said. “It was very clear what was going on … they were under a waterfall, not wearing a lot of clothes.”  Some immigration officers on Twitter have cataloged the surprises they receive — a “pee stick pregnancy test,” and actual pairs of underwear (“thankfully bagged”), among other “XXX marital bonafides.”

“No body shaming but I hate to flip the page on bureaucratic paperwork and then get a shock like that,” one East Coast-based officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told me via private message. “I don’t want to see anyone’s pubes.” Nonetheless, the government actually holds on to these submissions: Internal guidance sent from a regional office in June 2021 emphasized that they have to be kept on file, but suggested that envelopes be marked “graphic materials” so “only those who need to see them do.”  

Now, submitting graphic materials like this is generally a bad idea. The USCIS, which adjudicates immigration benefits, explicitly advises applicants to exclude “graphic photos of childbirth or intimate relations as evidence of a relationship or marriage.” In fact, including such stuff can negatively affect a couple’s application — it can lead the reviewing officer to suspect that the applicants are overcompensating and flag their case for a fraud investigation. And yet, people continue to do it.

This phenomenon may seem like an amusing, or alarming, quirk in an otherwise grim policy arena, but it’s actually a revealing (sorry) symptom of the assumptions coded deep within the U.S. immigration system. The fact is, the government does tend to view certain types of unions as more “legitimate” and certain types of spouses more worthy of citizenship. “Expectations of sexual intimacy are implicit in all of the laws around family reunification for [mixed-status] couples, and I think some couples try to make it explicit in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of their relationship,” said Jane Lilly López, a sociologist at Brigham Young University and the author of Unauthorized Love: Mixed-Citizenship Couples Negotiating Intimacy, Immigration, and the State.

Is it any wonder that couples misread the subtext and send in NSFW stuff? They are registering the fact that a consummated marriage is central to one of the biggest (and often only) available pathways to U.S. citizenship. For mixed-status couples, the entirety of their relationship — including its most intimate aspects — is under the purview of the U.S. government.

Immigration and sex have long been intertwined. One of the first immigration restrictions in the United States, the 1875 Page Act, was premised on the moral threat that immigrants, and Chinese women in particular, posed to the American family. Billed as an anti-prostitution law banning immigration for “lewd and immoral purposes,” it primarily targeted Chinese women. In 1937, the “Gigolo Act” codified the idea of marriage fraud, allowing for the deportation of noncitizen men if their marriages to U.S. citizens were annulled. Then, during the so-called “lavender scare” of the 1950s, new laws allowed the exclusion of immigrants with “mental defects” or a “pyschopathic personality” which —  according to Congress — included “homosexuals or sex perverts.” Later the rule was changed to ban people with a “sexual deviation,” and until as late as 1990, immigrants could be denied on such judgments as “looking like a lesbian.” Today’s immigration system is shaped by that history. “We have the prevailing norms around marriage, family, and sexuality from the 1930s that are still driving the immigration laws that we have today,” López said.

Family-based green cards now make up around 70 percent of the total number given out each year, and roughly 30 percent of that annual total are obtained through marriage to a U.S. citizen. Getting permanent residency this way is not an easy or swift process. It can take several years and thousands of dollars  in legal and application fees after an adult U.S. citizen first sponsors the non-citizen member of their immediate family — that is, a spouse, parent, sibling, or minor child. Citizens below a certain income threshold are not allowed to sponsor family members at all and queer Americans were only allowed to sponsor their partners after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

Throughout the process, the couples — and the noncitizens in particular — have little to no expectation of privacy. The noncitizens submit bank statements, detailed medical records (including regarding their sexual and mental health), criminal history, and biometric information. Together, the couples file joint financial records, leases, letters, private text messages, photographs with family, and correspondence with friends. Then they have to go over it all in successive interviews with USCIS. Undocumented spouses — depending on how they came to the country — are in for more paperwork, and risk being barred from the United States for years if they do not navigate it correctly. It’s not always easy to know what to include and what to leave out. “It’s like a poker game,” López said. “But a lot of people don’t know that there’s a game to be played at all.” 

The decision-making process on the government’s end can be highly opaque and often comes down to the discretion of the officer reviewing the case. Recently, some immigration lawyers have taken to TikTok in trying to warn about details that, if included, can be considered red flags by these officers: things as arbitrary as the married couple having the same employer or as nebulous as “unusual cultural differences.”

“Immigration is skeptical of every marriage,” the lawyer, Abramson, explained. But the skepticism also skews lighter or heavier based on the race, nationality, and class background of the two applicants, and whether they “match,” he added. A couple that is richer, whiter, straighter, more educated, and homogenous-seeming may get a pass where another may face questions. The overall scrutiny of immigrants, of course, also increased after the September 11 attacks and under anti-immigrant administrations like Donald Trump’s, as did the emphasis on fraud detection during such periods. 

“Often you have to defend yourself against this idea of the ‘fraudulent immigrant’ — someone who is very racialized, lower-class, scheming,” said Felicity Amaya Schaeffer, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies sexuality and globalization. Schaeffer analyzes marriages between U.S. citizen men and Latin American women in her book Love and Empire: Cybermarriage and Citizenship across the Americas. Women from certain countries and backgrounds can be seen as more promiscuous or immoral, so to demonstrate romantic love, she writes in the book, it becomes necessary for them to show “their sexual labor as moral and their bodies as productive rather than a risk to the nation.” 

That’s the undertone Sophia S., a formerly undocumented woman from Colombia, seemed to have picked up on when she submitted a photo of herself during a C-section as a part of her application in 2004. She had heard from people in her New York immigrant network that she would face a tough audience. So she went in armed with what she saw as irrefutable proof that she had married for love and not “business,” she told her daughter, Laura Palacio. 

The immigration officer gasped when he saw the image: “That’s enough — I believe you!” Sophia remembers him saying. “You see? That was my intention,” Sophia said in Spanish, in a voice note Palacio later played for me. 

In an essay in the New York Times, the author Kaitlyn Greenidge reflected on the persistent centrality of marriage to American life: how, despite some cultural strides, “whole industries and institutions — banking, real estate, health care, insurance, advertising and most important, taxation — revolve around assumptions of marriage as the norm.”

For many Americans, access to structural benefits (tax incentives, housing stability, and health care access), social perks (community, companionship, and cachet) and physical mobility (escaping restrictive families or dead-end towns) may be part of the calculus to marry. Sometimes, it might even be the driving factor. Either way, when they choose to do so, American citizens marry — and are often encouraged to marry — for reasons beyond just love, because marriage is a central institution of American governance.

In the immigration context, too, people are compelled to derive many benefits from marriage, but they are penalized if they appear to seek those benefits on purpose. Mixed-status couples have to demonstrate that they are marrying only for love, and not because of any doors that marriage may open for them; and certainly not because they want to share the access to rights and economic stability that citizenship promises. 

The stakes are high — real families can be separated and lives ruined by a denial. It is understandable, then, that some people throw everything they have at the wall during the green card process. The system tells them that marriage, and the sex that consummates it, “is compulsory if you want access to the circuits of movement across borders,” Schaeffer said.

“This is the irony, right?” she added. “Marriage is supposed to be about choice — you’re not supposed to be forced into it. But if this is the vehicle through which rights, citizenship, and green cards are accessed, then it becomes absolutely compulsory.”   

*A previous version of this story misstated Felicity Amaya Schaeffer’s current academic affiliation.              

Tanvi Misra is an independent writer and multimedia journalist based in Queens, New York. She has covered migration, cities, and justice for The Baffler, the New Republic, The Atlantic, and other publications.