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With Employees in Jeopardy, Most Studios, Agencies Stay Silent on DACA

In the wake of President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, a program offering temporary resident status to some 800,000 immigrants who were brought into the United States as children, Disney CEO Bob Iger emerged as the leading voice in Hollywood, criticizing the move as “cruel and misguided.”

Iger, a Democrat being eyed to potentially run for president as a second-act career, has steadfastly become among Trump’s sharpest critics. His boldest move came in June by quitting a White House advisory council after the president backed out of the Paris climate accord. And Iger’s increasing outspokenness is notable because his entertainment industry peers have typically shied away from taking on controversial political topics.

From major talent agencies to massive entertainment conglomerates, top executives have been largely absent in the dialogue concerning the president’s latest controversy — even if that means their silence might make staffers in the crosshairs of Trump’s political gambit more vulnerable. Amid an increase in immigration arrests under Trump, anxiety is high among Dreamers. Some are preparing for the worst-case scenario: deportation to a country they do not know, leaving behind family, friends and burgeoning careers. And critics aren’t mincing words about the industry’s silence.

“That doesn’t speak well for them,” says Alex Nogales, co-founder of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Pasadena, Calif.-based Latino watchdog organization. He expressed surprise that more entertainment chieftains haven’t been vocal: “Everyone is coming to the fore and seeing Trump and company for what they are — and what they are is racist.”

Indeed, as the political rhetoric escalates, the muted response from Hollywood stands out in part because of the outcry from a wide array of other industries. For example, Silicon Valley has been at the forefront of support for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, which offers work permits and temporary resident status to those who came to the U.S. as children and prevents them from being deported.

Tech titans took the hardest line against the assault on DACA, with Apple CEO Tim Cook saying his company plans to aggressively lobby Congress and battle in the courts to protect 250 employees under the program. Microsoft chief legal officer Brad Smith said the software giant would do the same to defend its 39 Dreamer staffers from deportation. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg hosted three DACA immigrants at his Palo Alto home — and live-streamed their personal stories while lobbying Congress to protect them from deportation.

The response from Hollywood after Iger spoke out: CBS CEO Leslie Moonves issued a statement urging Congress to “pass legislation that protects these young people who were raised in our country and have every reason to rely on our goodwill and support.” Viacom’s Bob Bakish signed his name to a letter alongside other top American CEOs urging Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others to protect DACA. In a blog post David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, called Trump’s action “disappointing” and also urged Congress to act.

The major film studios did not respond to requests for comment or deferred to their parent company chiefs’ statements. Major talent agencies, such as UTA, CAA and WME, also declined to comment or did not return telephone calls.

Mitú’s Beatriz Acevedo with L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti at Mitú’s new L.A. headquarters; the digital media firm is offering to pay the fee for DACA permits for those still eligible. AP

Hollywood’s hush is disturbing to Dreamers like aspiring filmmaker Maribel Serrano. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and remembers crossing the border as a child, “being in a car and going to a whole new place.” Serrano, now 30, is one of California’s more than 200,000 Dreamers who underwent background checks and provided sensitive information like fingerprints to the federal government in exchange for a work permit and a two-year reprieve from deportation.

No official tally of how many Dreamers work in the entertainment business exists. But analysts project the number is high considering Hollywood is one of the region’s biggest employers. The California Employment Development Dept. estimates there are 140,000 people in the entertainment industry, which pumps billions into the Los Angeles economy.

“Film executives and network executives should be speaking out,” said Serrano, who is executive producing a documentary titled “My DACA Life,” about her journey back to the country she left when she was 4. “The situation on DACA is gaining so much support from the community as a whole. This industry needs to take note of that. This is their audience. The DACA community is their audience.”

Serrano said she’s unsure what will happen to her. But she doesn’t plan to remain silent. “I’m preparing to keep speaking, to complete my documentary,” she said. “I’ve had to learn throughout my life to make things work. I’m not going to let [Trump] just bring me down and take something away from me that I fought so hard for.”

As movie studios remain mum on the plan to rescind DACA, Beatriz Acevedo, co-founder of Mitú, the digital media company aimed at Latino millennials, is charging directly into the fray.

Mitú is embarking on a campaign to tell the stories of DACA recipients, inviting comment from people who have benefited from their presence in the country. In recent weeks, stories have emerged about Dreamers who assisted in search-and-rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, including one who died after attempting to bring others to safety.

“It’s a shift in the narrative,” Acevedo said, adding that having white people share stories of how a Dreamer affected their lives has the potential to be more resonant. “White voices, whether you like it or not, are appealing to other people who look like them.”

The tactic of using majority voices to argue for minority rights proved successful during the campaign for same-sex marriage. Television spots featuring families, friends and co-workers of LGBT couples arguing that the people they cared about should be able to marry recast the argument in favor of same-sex marriage to one that emphasized love over civil rights.

Mitú has offered to pay the $495 fee for employees who are still eligible to renew their DACA permits. Acevedo said several of her employees are DACA recipients but declined to give an exact number.

The relative silence by studio chiefs is “baffling” and “disconcerting,” Acevedo said, adding it might reflect their fear that any political statement would alienate a portion of their base of moviegoers.

“They’re scared in the same way that they’re scared to greenlight movies that really represent what America is today,” she said, pointing to the freer path online to producing content.

“That’s the power of digital,” she said. “[We don’t have] to wait for someone to think, will [this] resonate, [will this] alienate people? We’re lucky to have this platform [to] speak our minds and tell our stories.”

Ted Johnson contributed to this report.

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