When the actor Diane Guerrero, known for her work on Jane the Virgin and Orange Is the New Black, was 14, she came home from high school in Boston to find her parents gone.
Before Guerrero was born, the couple had traveled to America from their native Colombia, searching, like so many families before and after them, for a respite from the violence and lack of opportunity in their homeland, and hoping to find a better life. They stayed with friends in New Jersey, then moved on to Boston. In each place they lived, they met with attorneys, looking for a path to legal residence but meeting dead ends.
Guerrero’s parents were taken by deportation officers in the spring of 2001, months before the DREAM act was first introduced in the Senate, and years before the immigrant-rights protests of 2006 catapulted the plight of non-citizen families into the national consciousness. Nobody was talking about immigration, Guerrero says, so she remained silent, too: she told no one except her closest friends what happened to her parents.
While an average of 17 children each day are placed under state care after their parents are detained and deported, Guerrero, and many others like her, was left on her own; she lived with friends and worked retail and nightclub jobs for money. “No government official checked up on me,” Guerrero wrote in her recent book, In the Country We Love. “I felt like the only child who’d ever dealt with something so overwhelming.” She’s not: According to The Washington Post, around 7 percent of American children have undocumented parents; like Guerrero, the risks of being separated from their parents weigh heavily upon them.
When Guerrero decided to come forward with her story—first with an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times in November 2014, and with her book in May of this year—immigration had already cemented as a hot-button issue. But in a year when a presidential candidate has rallied bigots around the cry to “build a wall” along the southern border of the United States, and when the current administration has conducted multiple sweeps targeting undocumented residents for deportation, it became clear to Guerrero that the political discussions around immigration fail to account for the human lives behind the headlines.
Guerrero, now 30, has become an outspoken immigrant-rights advocate and a White House ambassador for citizenship and naturalization, and CBS recently green-lighted a TV version of her memoir; the show is currently in development, with Guerrero set to star. CityLab spoke to Guerrero about coming forward with her story and bringing a previously silenced topic into the cultural conversation.
You’ve spoken about how you felt silenced after your parents were deported. What made you decide to speak out about your experience?
I was quiet for a long time, and I was upset that I couldn’t be honest with myself or with anyone around me. But I was inspired by all the DREAMers and their parents and other undocumented folks that were putting themselves on the line and speaking up. I wanted to be a part of that movement, and I didn’t see anyone with my type of platform coming out with a personal story; I thought it could be effective, and I thought it would be a disservice if I didn’t share mine in this way.
What were some of the misconceptions or blind spots around immigration and deportation that you’ve witnessed, and are trying to clarify through your work?
The biggest misconception is that for people coming to this country, there is a back of the line to go to. That if you want to be a citizen and do it the right way, you just can. There are so many more obstacles to face. When people enter a place where they feel unwanted, that sets them up for failure. And then, there are plenty of people trying to scheme and plot against them, who are unfair and deceitful. I wanted to bring light to that—the false lawyers who prey on desperate immigrant families, like the man who conned my father into handing over thousands of dollars for help that never came. People don’t know how often immigrants get trapped in the process of trying to do things “the right way” and become American.
What kind of effect has this election cycle had on you?
The anti-immigration argument is always framed as “protecting our citizens,” but I wasn’t protected, and I’m a citizen. We shouldn’t be so careless with human beings, and we shouldn’t be so careless with our families. When Donald Trump calls people like me “anchor babies,” he’s sending the wrong message. Instead of deporting anyone connected with an undocumented immigrant, we need to start talking about the immigration system in this country. It’s flawed, and it’s outdated, and people don’t know how it works—maybe it’s been designed that way, to keep people in the dark. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I want to be part of the conversation pushing for a new solution.
Your upcoming show, also called In the Country We Love, is the second show announced this year to deal with immigration—the CW’s Casa will also take on the subject. (Vanity Fair speculates that “modern immigration stories might be TV’s next vital trend.”) What does it mean to have stories like yours brought into the popular conversation?
It was inevitable. My show won’t follow my memoir exactly—in it, the main character will have a background like mine, but she’ll be a lawyer who decides to take on deportation cases as pro-bono work. She’ll be fighting for justice and for her own family, but also for all of the families she works with. It’s a way to address these questions about immigration, to keep the conversation going. I don’t think entertainment or television can get away with doing the same thing we’ve been doing for years, which has been avoiding any sort of heavy topics—topics that affect a huge part of the population.
Especially this past year, with the elections, with all of the shootings and deportations, we can’t avoid what the real issues in America are, and the media needs to reflect that. We’ve all been living with the idea that if you mention race or immigration or deportation, you have to be very quiet about it. I always say that I wish I had the resources and conversations that exist now when I was 14—even just a book, or a website, or a TV show that I could’ve looked to and said: There’s somebody I can relate to. We have to be able to talk about these complicated issues and try to get to know one another, and finally reach an understanding.