Communication Currents

“Do you need a green card or something?” Romantic relationships, citizenship, and stigmatizing communication

June 26, 2024
Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication

New Series Vol. 1, No. 4

Seven percent (4 million and increasing) of all married US couples in 2011 were citizen/non-citizen marriages. People in interethnic and interracial romantic relationships generally experience challenges that partners from similar ethnic backgrounds do not, and necessary immigration-related processes present additional hardships. Despite their prevalence, few academic researchers studied these relationships and their unique challenges. This study’s authors, Amnee Elkhalidm, Ethan Morrow, and Trisha Long sought to understand how couples (married and unmarried) in citizen/non-citizen relationships experience stigma in interactions with close others (e.g., friends and family) and in society generally. These researchers possess both expertise in and personal experience with this topic: U.S. citizen Elkhalid lived abroad and had parents who, at one point, had different citizenships; Morrow is a U.S. citizen in a citizen/non-citizen relationship; and Long is a citizen of another country and also in a citizen/non-citizen relationship.  

Throughout U.S. history, the public held xenophobic attitudes and stereotypes, policy making resulted in systemic oppression (e.g., Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and, more recently, hate crimes against Asians increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors defined stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” and such attributes can be one’s physical characteristics, personality traits, or even demographic factors such as one’s country of origin and/or nationality. Citizen/non-citizen partners may be subject to all three types of stigma, usually due to inaccurate and harmful anti-immigrant stereotypes existing even before the Trump administration introduced travel bans and other restrictive immigration policies.  

Such stigma often leads to both mental and physical health issues, plus other serious consequences such as deportation, separation, and legal restrictions for partners in citizen/non-citizen relationships. Among these consequences are both public and private social discourses suggesting that the foreign-born partner is in a relationship with their citizen partner only to secure legal immigration status (commonly “getting a green card”); the authors call this “green card marriage” stigma. Communication theories can aid understanding of citizen/non-citizen partners’ experiences with stigma. Stigma Management Communication Theory outlines coping strategies that people facing stigma might use including accepting, avoiding, and denying. Relational Turbulence Theory explains that transitions in relationships, such as a partner applying for citizenship or lawful permanent residency, are intense moments that can significantly affect how partners think, feel, and communicate about their relationship. 

The authors did not base their study on these theories’ claims but took an exploratory approach. The authors interviewed 15 individuals and analyzed their transcripts using the phronetic iterative approach by which they repeatedly reviewed and reflected on their data to find patterns and gain deeper understanding. Participants were men and women, both married and unmarried, mostly heterosexual, between the ages of 20 and 68, highly educated, and identified as Asian (five), white (four), Black (two), Hispanic (two), and Middle Easten (two). 

Researchers identified two overarching themes: Green Card Marriage Stigma and Vulnerability and Immigration Policy. The former, mentioned in 11 interviews, captures participants experiences of stigma and had two subthemes: personal encounter and debunking. In personal encounter, six subjects received an explicitly stigmatizing message about immigration implications of their relationship, most often from friends and family. Participants communicated feelings of frustration, hurt, and other negative emotions, sometimes about their own relationship. Fatima, a non-citizen participant, reported that her partner’s parents asked, “Do you need a green card or something?” and accused her of “having bad intentions for staying with him" and an “ulterior motive.” Both citizen and non-citizen participants had these experiences and believed that such messages from their friends and family came from ignorance about immigration processes and related experiences. Only one participant believed that these messages came from concern for that participant’s wellbeing. Some participants mentioned that these family or friend relationships became strained initially but improved over time or after receiving an apology.  

Seven participants recalled debunking green card marriage stigma by explaining to friends or family members that they and/or their partner were in the relationship solely to be with their partner. Non-citizen participants often explained that other residency pathways were available (education or employment) and that they (or their partners) had come to the U.S. independently and were able to legally reside in the USA without help. Some even mentioned that they would feel uncomfortable relying on a partner or marriage for their legal status. 

The second theme, Vulnerability and Immigration Policy, captures the impact of anti-immigration messages and policies on participants and relationships, addressed by 12 participants. Many reported that they significantly increased their attention to politics after the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies and experienced increased uncertainty and fear. These policies quickly became a source of anxiety that impacted their decision-making (e.g., avoiding travelling) for fear of possible ramifications for their relationships. Non-citizen participants felt that the Trump administration threatened their identities and encouraged hostility by other U.S. citizens. One participant (a citizen) said that he and his partner married, even though his partner (a non-citizen) did not feel ready for marriage, to “cement” their relationship. 

One strength of this study was the participants’ diversity, though not perfectly representative, and the researchers’ positionality. (One common criticism of social scientific research, including Communication, is its overreliance on participants who are college students from similar backgrounds: white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic [WEIRD].) 

Most participants had directly experienced green card marriage stigma, illustrating its pervasiveness in the U.S. Fortunately, citizen/non-citizen partners were able to cope with this stigma—and related emotions and uncertainty about their relationships—through communicating in ways that increased their relational security and stability and by taking action such as pursuing immigration through education, employment, or, in some cases, marriage. Thus, the authors urge political leaders to recognize the power in their language and communication and how they impact the lives of individuals. Therapists and practitioners may refer to research like this to inform their approaches to supporting citizen/non-citizen partners through these challenges. This article provides useful strategies for citizen/non-citizen partners to debunk green card marriage stigma to educate and prevent further harmful messaging and/or defensiveness from friends and family. 

Communication Currents Discussion Questions 

  1. Reflect on the ways you personally have witnessed green card marriage stigma and anti-immigration rhetoric. Have you ever unwittingly perpetuated such stigma or witnessed a friend or family member do so? What are strategies that you can use to dismantle this stigma and educate yourself and others about immigration issues? 
  2. How can political figures, therapists and practitioners, and individuals support citizen/non-citizen romantic partners? What actions can these groups take? 
  3. Can you think of instances in which ignorance and stereotyping might lead U.S. residents to make stigmatizing statements about other individuals or groups? 

For additional suggestions about how to use this and other Communication Currents in the classroom, see: 


Amnee Elkhalid is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Arkansas. 

Ethan Morrow is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Trisha Leong is a Ph.D. Student in Communication at Missouri State University. 

This essay, by R. E. Purtell, translates the scholarly journal article, Amnee Elkhalid, Ethan Morrow, and Trisha Leong (2023): “Do you need a green card or something?” Romantic relationships, citizenship, and stigmatizing communication, in Communication Monographs, 90(4): 477–498. 


 2024 National Communication Association

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