The Real Housewives of New Jersey debuted in 2009 with a cast of women who could’ve walked off a Sopranos set. Of the whole messy ensemble, one member in particular possessed an unmistakable gravitational pull. Teresa Giudice, identified by her long curly hair, oddly small forehead, and a thick Jersey-Italian accent, immediately drew in viewers with her sincerely un-self-conscious attitude and brash mannerisms, like pointing a French-manicured finger at someone or something whenever she lost her cool or flipping a table every once in a while.
In the first season of the show, Teresa and her husband Joe moved into a 10,000-square-foot mansion in Montville, New Jersey, outfitting their gauche palace with custom gold interiors like some free-spending Saudi sheikhs. On camera, Teresa threw around wads of cash, purchasing thousands of dollars worth of furniture and clothing for her four daughters, and rarely appearing without a status handbag. But just as her on-screen antics — screaming “prostitution whore!” at her fellow castmate during a christening, for instance — earned her fame and notoriety, the Giudices’ fortunes proved to be a fiction. In 2009, at the tail-end of the housing crisis, the couple filed for bankruptcy, claiming that a series of bad real-estate investments left them with close to $11 million in debt.
Thus began the Giudices’ decade-long legal battle. In court documents, it became clear that Teresa's entire on-screen persona was bankrolled by fraud and tax evasion. The Giudices pleaded not guilty to a 39-count indictment in 2013, which painted a picture of a couple willing to risk losing everything to maintain appearances in their flashy, North Jersey circles. A little over a year later, Teresa and Joe pled guilty. (Two more fraud charges were subsequently added, to which they pled not guilty.) Teresa was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, and Joe 41. They were to serve separately so one of them could take care of their kids.
RHONJ’s 10th season, which is set to conclude this month, was expected to show an end to the Giudice saga. Over the course of five years (and four seasons) Teresa and Joe served their separate sentences, their emotional goodbyes filmed for the show. In 2015, Teresa headed to a federal facility in Danville, CT. A year later, she returned home, only to see her husband off to serve his much longer term. He finished his 41-month sentence in March 2019, when most thought he would return to his New Jersey Home.
Instead, the Giudice storyline took a shocking turn: Joe, who was born in Italy and never obtained U.S. citizenship despite spending his life here, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And so among the usual Hamptons trips and plastic surgery recoveries that provide narrative grist for the Real Housewives, Season 10 of RHONJ also gives us a very timely story of America’s regressive immigration system, as Teresa and her daughters go head-to-head with one of the country’s most reviled agencies.
It’s difficult to muster a lot of sympathy for Joe Giudice, a reality-TV star who committed fraud more or less so his family could live like suburban feudal lords for the viewers of Bravo. But he immigrated to the U.S. when he was a year old and lived his life mostly as a lawful resident in the Jersey area. He accepted a plea deal for his crimes and completed his prison sentence, thereby executing the punishment meted out by American justice system. The last thing he was expecting, probably, was to be deported; the order from ICE came just as he was released from prison and the possibility of deportation was never discussed during his plea agreement.
Cast members say hi to Joe when he calls collect from prison, but once he hangs up, some mirthful, plucky transition music leads the audience back to arguments over who served better food at whose party.
His case, though, is a clear-cut example of the damning legacy of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration reform, which made it much easier to deport documented and undocumented residents of the U.S. The bill made it so that even if you are a green card holder or any other resident who came here via legal immigration channels, if you commit a wide swathe of crimes — including fraud, theft, and other non-violent crimes — you can be deported. bill set the precedent for a wave of regulations aimed at making “aliens” in the U.S. precarious in their legal standing, considered less than American citizens in a justice system hardly forgiving to immigrants to begin with. And under President Donald Trump, ICE has become a hyper-vigilant agency eager to carry out deportations wherever it can.
Watching Giudice’s deportation play out on RHONJ is surreal, especially because one can assume most of the cast members vote right-of-center. But it’s also jarring because Giudice’s case carries the markings of many aggressive deporations aimed at immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Before 1996, deportations were a rare phenomenon, but in the following years they rose “to levels not seen since the deportation campaigns of the Great Depression,” write sociologists Douglas Massey and Karen Pren in their 2012 study “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy.” In 2018, ICE deported more than 250,000 people, but before you put on your #resistance hat, consider that ICE under Obama deported more than 400,000 in 2012 alone. Many of the hundreds of thousands of “criminal aliens” who are deported due to criminal convictions have committed victimless crimes, like traffic violations.
The show doesn’t get mired in such details. Joe’s case hasn’t resulted in any wine-throwing catfights about punishing lawful immigrants to the U.S.differently than citizens, or any mention of ICE’s open-air deportation camps or the agency’s fascistic operations. His case is not like the systematic deportations happening in secret tent courts at the border; he (somehow) has funding for a robust legal team, the means to live in Italy after being deported, and the added benefit of a rabid audience watching every step of his appeals process. And his case is presented in the suspended reality of the Real Housewives universe; lawsuits, after all, are a fixture across all the franchises. Cast members say hi to Joe when he calls collect from prison, but once he hangs up, some mirthful, plucky transition music leads the audience back to arguments over who served better food at whose party.
But where the show lacks sympathy for the deported and context about deportation in general, it also provides vivid insight into the painful aftermath of forced family separation. Joe and Teresa’s four daughters have grown up in front of the cameras, for better or for worse (when Teresa returned from her year-long prison sentence, her eldest daughter Gia scolded her little sister for not getting dressed in time in case she ended up in Teresa’s paparazzi photos). The threat of their father’s deportation is the cause of multiple tearful conversations. When should they tell the littlest one? How are the kids coping with the stress of knowing their father will never come back? In one scene, Joe calls from an ICE facility on Easter Sunday and his youngest daughter, overcome with emotion, runs off camera sobbing. (In December, the Giudices announced they were splitting after 20 years of marriage.)
The Real Housewives franchise has made a few passing attempts at discussing politics directly: the New York City series featured a stilted debate about Trump and Hilary, while the Beverly Hills housewives became embroiled in an intense debate about the rape accusations leveled against Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But Real Housewives is a show explicitly made for thinking about nothing. “I don’t watch the news,” a BravoCon attendee told writer Tracie Egan Morrissey last year. “I only watch Bravo. I don’t want to think about the horrible things in the world.”
When the show bumps up against real life, when the “horrible things” seep into its perfumed universe, viewers are forced to consider that the Giudice family’s pain might be happening elsewhere. Maybe they carry on blissfully unaware of any human suffering triggered by our imperious immigration system. But the real world can’t be avoided forever, not even on Bravo.