This story appears in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
On January 25, just days into his presidency, Donald Trump ordered the construction of a wall along the Mexican-American border. In the same breath, he vowed to strengthen the Immigration and Customs Enforcement—the agency charged with enforcing immigration law—and to oppose "sanctuary cities." That day, news outlets released a draft of an executive order that blocks entry of all refugees for 120 days and suspends immigration for at least 30 days from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Protesters gathered that evening in New York City to defend the safety and acceptance of immigrant communities, chanting, "No ban, no wall."
As a Mexican immigrant living in a sanctuary city myself, these orders set a dark tone for the months and years ahead. How are relationships that cross borders resisting the Trump administration's assault? I talked with culture writer Josephine Livingstone, philosopher and writer Fuck Theory*, and graduate students Amanda Choo Quan and Rosa Boshier about how love, interpersonal relationships, and our sex lives are affected when, as immigrants or first-generation Americans, our rights and those of our loved ones are threatened by the state.
Ana: First, I think it would be good to hear a little bit from each of you about your individual stakes on immigration.
Rosa: I'm first generation. If my parents hadn't exercised their right to cross borders, then I wouldn't be here. But beyond liberty, immigration is an issue of human dignity. I just think it's ridiculous that with all the imported labor that built America that we would have the audacity to deny others the chance to make better lives for him or herself.
Amanda: I am from Trinidad and am in the States for graduate school. I have an F-1 visa, so that means I can only work 20 hours a week on campus. The visa is very much intended to bind your life to the school and not to the wider world.
Josephine: I was here on a student visa for a long time, and I'm now a nonresident alien. I will be O-1 status, once my visa is finally processed. It's been in "administrative processing," and they won't tell me what that means or anything else. I've been in London for a month just waiting.
Fuck Theory: I am not a US citizen. I grew up multilingual with English as my strongest language; all of my long-term partners have been American; I have a degree from an elite American university; and I have been living here for almost a decade. But I cannot travel freely, much less vote, and my status in my adopted home is precarious.
Ana: Given your individual situations, have you ever felt immigration law threatened your partnerships, or the possibility for a partnership?
Amanda: The precariousness of my visa situation—I have a year after school to find a job—has definitely affected the way I've pursued intimate relationships. I constantly carry an awareness of unexpectedly having to leave the country. But I am undecided as to whether the kinds of paranoia that I had pre-Trump will change that much in the coming year. Even though I have been here legally, I still feel as though anything can happen at any point in time, and that was not a feeling that suddenly arose in me when Trump was elected.
Ana: Are any of you sensitive to how things might shift because of Trump's administration?
Josephine: There's the fear that Trump will mess with the visa categories. He's talked specifically about restricting work visas, and that means me. It introduces an element of contingency to a relationship that makes everything feel impermanent.
I am stuck in London and currently in an open relationship with a US citizen. We got back together two days before I left for England, expecting we would have a million conversations as soon as I was back a week later. We didn't know I would be here indefinitely, so we've had those conversations about the various reservations I had pertaining to getting back together via text, which is not ideal.
We have sex a lot less often, and I think it's because we're in our heads a lot, thinking about the current situation, stuck in the fuzz of depression.
Ana: How else have immigration issues affected your relationships?
Amanda: I've wondered if it's my reluctance to be involved in a relationship or another person's reluctance to be involved with me. I don't know which one is stronger. I wonder if my precarity is at the back of their minds, too.
It's also the nature of American relationships. In Trinidad, you enter a relationship with someone, and then you fuck. Or, if you fuck, it's implied that you're going to be serious at some point. So you are kind of assured that the relationship is "real" in some sense. Here, there's a sense of people drifting in and out. I had a hard time adapting to this new way of being with someone. I can't let myself just be chill. When I am only here for two years, with the threat of deportation in the back of my mind, I do not know if I can just be cool and say, "Yeah, let's just do stuff."
Rosa: For me, though my partner was born here, he is often mistaken for a noncitizen. His whole life he's been subject to stereotypes. Before Trump, it was upsetting and potentially dangerous. We watched where we traveled. Now, I regularly worry for his physical safety and his mental health, even here in California.
The need for additional precautions can be frustrating and humiliating. Not too long ago, my partner was accosted at a gas station in the town where we live. He was worried that the next time he was profiled he'd lose it on some bigot and have to pay the price. We actually had a serious conversation about whether or not he should go to the gas station by himself. I don't think either of us thought it would come to that. The inability to protect yourself is demoralizing, and naturally, that affects your partnership.
Ana: Has it affected your sex life?
Rosa: Yes, definitely. Before it was fun, you know, recreational. Sex was a way to strengthen our friendship as well as our physical connection. It could be this light, funny thing. Now it feels less playful, more functional—for comfort, for a sense of safety. There's a component of clinging, or survival, like we're using sex to affirm our humanity. We have sex a lot less often, and I think it's because we're in our heads a lot, thinking about the current situation, stuck in the fuzz of depression.
Ana: Has "otherness" impacted the way your relationships develop, even apart from the idea of citizenship and deportation?
Josephine: I'm white and have a European accent so probably in no way at all, except that the people I date often have very little concept of where and how I grew up. In my college, teaching, it has probably even helped. It's nice to be unknowable, sometimes.
Rosa: My partner and I initially bonded over being "misunderstood mixed kids." Finding humor in misperceptions has gotten us through a lot of hard times. Whenever our places as members of our respective cultures are questioned or our identities are essentialized, we have each other. It's nice to be with someone who understands that experience. You don't have to explain it to them, they just know.
I wonder constantly if I am viewed as an exotic oddity.
Fuck Theory: This goes in many directions for me, partly because of my weird mix of identities. I was born in the Middle East, but I'm white-passing, speak unaccented English, and Judaism can have very different sexual connotations for people, so I've gotten all kinds of responses.
Like a racial difference, a national difference tends to be marked, whether positively or negatively. Practically speaking, that means that my partners tend to either err on the side of treating me completely "normally," forgetting and erasing my difference in the process, or on the side of constantly reminding me that I "didn't grow up here," asking invasive questions about my family's personal habits, and requesting that I speak in an accent.
I will definitely say that as a foreigner in the US, not having an accent completely changes my experience. People treat foreigners as slightly stupid, but they also let them get away with shit. We tend to expect higher standards from people we think are like us, so speaking English without an accent has sometimes made it difficult for me to convince someone there was a genuine cultural difference at play in an interpersonal dynamic.
Amanda: My biggest insecurity around otherness is a fear that I don't share the same references as my peers. Being American is so self referential in lots of ways. I've learned that you have to wear your references on your sleeves.
I wonder constantly if I am viewed as an exotic oddity. There's a layer of race put over that. I've learned there is a desired exoticness—and an undesirable one—that are in part determined by race and class. Coming to America was my first awakening to my difference.
Ana: Has the question of marriage for citizenship ever come up for you?
Josephine: I've seen a lot of peers marry for immigration reasons, and while it has worked for them, I am sure that I just could never do it. It would be so hard—too hard.
Ana: How so?
Josephine: It's difficult to describe; it's just stubbornness. I refuse to cheat. I want to demand my place in America. I also have a terrible fear of being in debt to somebody, not knowing how far I can trust. In order to pull off a visa marriage, you have to open a joint bank account with the spouse. You're making yourself vulnerable—your money, your future. Whenever I start thinking about it, I just feel real worried for all the women who have married for citizenship in the past.
Fuck Theory: I agree. The specter of marriage came up in all three of my most recent long-term relationships, each time in a different way. At the end of the day, that person always knows they have something over you, or that you might want something from them. Obviously, there are many possible complications, and I would advise anyone considering such an arrangement to think very carefully and know the risks, both for the partner who is foreign and for the partner who is a citizen.
Ultimately, I feel about that sort of arrangement the way I feel about virtually any arrangement that improves the lives of individuals without doing harm as collateral damage: A-OK.