Immigration and the thorny issues surrounding it have fueled countless back-and-forths on cable news shows, but the much-debated topic has also steadily found its way into the scripted realm, with viewers’ favorite fictional characters wrestling with problems including ICE raids, deportation and the plight of the DACA Dreamers.
The saga of Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez) secretly undocumented grandmother Alba’s (Ivonne Coll) bid to attain legal status on the CW’s “Jane The Virgin” has been a long-simmering plotline for several seasons, notably because the family’s Venezuelan heritage lent itself to organically exploring the topic, showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman says. In the show’s fourth season, Alba finally becomes a U.S. citizen.
“As things have progressed and administrations have changed, the urgency and the power of these stories have become just that much more amplified [and] it took on even more weight,” Urman explains.
She also admits they “got a little bit more overt” of late in the images depicted surrounding the issue — including a moment after Alba’s citizenship test victory in which a presidential portrait of Donald Trump morphs into Barack Obama, winking at the audience. Urman says the “Jane” writers’ room is “not a room that cares for this administration, and I think that’s reflected in the arguments and in the storytelling.”
The “One Day at a Time” revival on Netflix, which centers around a Cuban-American family, initially focused its immigration exploration around a recurring character whose parents are deported to Mexico. It was not just a way to explore a story rich with emotions deeper than the usual sitcom, but also a teachable moment, says co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett.
“We did it because initially Norman Lear said, ‘What if Rita Moreno’s character was deported?’” she recalls. “And we said, ‘Cubans can’t be deported.’ He didn’t know that, and I said, ‘No, different rules for different people.’ So we thought this would be a great way to talk about it.”
Kellett notes that it was also intentional for their series to introduce the character (played by Ariela Barer) to allow people to get to know her before hearing her immigration story. In its second season, “One Day at a Time” also revealed that the grandmother of the show, Lydia (Moreno), was not a citizen either, and similar to “Jane the Virgin,” the show spent time following her journey to take the exam.
While fear of being exposed played a part in both of those comedies, the drama “The Fosters” took things even further, developing a story about ICE coming for Callie’s (Maia Mitchell) classmate before the repeal of DACA was making headlines.
“We always try to integrate it and make sure that it’s grounded in a real story and we’re not just doing an issue,” says executive producer Joanna Johnson.
“The Fosters” aired its DACA storyline as Trump was rescinding the bill, and as life and art began to reflect each other, Johnson adds that it was important for her show to “really put a personal face” on the issue. While people may read the news, they may not know anyone personally affected by what they’re reading.
“It should be a topic that is easily discussed through many forms.”
“[When you] have a character that you’re invested in, then the story would have even more meaning and perhaps kind of enlighten some people who might not have been in favor of DACA to changing their minds,” Johnson says.
Art literally and purposely reflected life on CBS’ “Superior Donuts” this season, in which executive producer Bob Daily was inspired to add a deportation episode into the sitcom after successfully wooing actress and activist Diane Guerrero to join the cast as a regular and learning of her own distressing story chronicled in her 2016 memoir. When Guerrero was 14, her parents and older brother were deported from Boston back to their home country of Colombia, stranding her in the U.S.
“I felt that, if Diane was OK with it, that would be a really interesting episode and a really good way to kind of dramatize and personalize the immigration situation,” says Daily.
Guerrero acknowledges that these stories can be tough sells — among the production team, let alone to an audience. “It is a heavy issue, and I think that that’s been probably the problem,” says Guerrero. “The way that it’s been brought to light and the way the story has been told has always been very grim.”
However, she notes the need to deal with such story on an “everyday basis because it’s our reality.”
“It’s so part of our American story that it should be a topic that is easily discussed through through many forms,” she says.
And because Daily knows people do have “diverse points of view” on the issue, he and his writing team wanted to include another side of the immigration argument, using regular character Fawz (Maz Jobrani) as a more conservative mouthpiece.
“In his politically incorrect way, I think we were able to find a funny way for him to voice the opposing view,” he says.
None of the showrunners reported any hesitation about their approach to the subject matter from their respective networks. And the audience feedback, by and large, was also both positive and rewarding.
“People were thrilled to see us show a situation that’s very relatable,” says “One Day at a Time” co-showrunner Mike Royce. “We’re just sort of following Norman’s footsteps.”
Urman says the capper to “Jane’s” citizenship saga “was about as big a moment as our show has had.” Still, she’s unsure how much Alba’s story changed any hearts and minds previously opposed to undocumented status.
“The people that watch our show are an open-hearted, generous bunch,” she notes. “We’ve mostly just had people saying that they liked and appreciated the portrayal. [But] I don’t think Donald Trump is watching it and reconsidering his point of view.”
Nevertheless, the potential to effect change, even in smaller doses, looms large for producers.
“Telling stories [is] about not just entertaining, but also maybe enlightening and exposing humanity and tackling provocative issues,” Johnson says. “You don’t always get to do that in the business.”