A constrained sigh — a fleeting release. My reaction to the Supreme Court voting in our favor to block the Trump administration from ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), last Thursday, was one of surprise. We, the Dreamers, were all bracing ourselves to see the Obama-era program that has protected us from deportation be annihilated. Bearing my worst fear in mind, like many others, I renewed my DACA application 10 months prior to expiration, just so I could have as much time as possible to prepare myself and my family for the worse.
This victory is a temporary sigh of relief. I’m cognizant that this temporary moment comes after weeks of protest around the country over how the criminal justice system fails black citizens (documented and undocumented). This decision is personal for me because I put everything on the line when I announced my DACA status publicly three years ago to join the immigration justice fight. Back then, I wasn’t sure if my public announcement decision was career suicide, or if this administration would try to make an infamous example out of me for being vocal. What I was resolute about was that I was sick and tired of living in fear and hiding this issue.
To my delight, my colleagues, representatives, and casting directors were very supportive. Mike Schur and his team kept me on NBC’s “The Good Place” until the very last season. My representation supported and cautioned me that they wouldn’t be able to submit me for 40%-50% of theatrical projects because they shoot in Canada, and DACA prohibits travel outside the U.S. Somehow, against all odds, I never stopped persevering, booking work, and advocating for immigrants in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, many foreign actors with varying immigration statuses were not having the same experience. A number of foreign actors with DACA and O1 visas continue to face even more extreme obstacles. These colleagues reached out to me via social media for advice regarding discriminatory casting notices and getting dropped by their representation because their immigration status limits their job prospects. I, personally, have been confronted by these kinds of casting notices, but I would always tell my reps that I was legally authorized to work in the U.S. as a DACA recipient. I did some research, gathered knowledge on industry standards, and realized that this exclusionary practice is widespread. I since compiled dozens of casting notices that blatantly state that an actor “Must be U.S. Citizen and/or be Green Card holder. (No O1 visas)”. It became clear that my industry discriminates based on nationality and immigration status. I immediately reached out to my network in the immigrant rights space, and I connected with Color of Change — a nonprofit organization that works to advance racial justice.
In early 2019 we contacted all of the diversity, equity, and inclusion offices at every major studio and made them aware of these pronounced barriers to entry. We told them that such casting notices make it difficult and nearly impossible for Black actors who do not have citizenship or permanent resident status, who, nevertheless, are legally permitted to work within the United States, to find work within the industry. We further conveyed that these prohibitive practices reflect a larger culture of discrimination against a group of people who are already severely underrepresented and marginalized in the entertainment and performing arts industry. We requested a public commitment from the studios to address the discrimination against actors based on immigration status and to change their policies to reflect social responsibility and acknowledge that they will no longer shut out hiring the very people whose stories they profit from everyday. Representation matters.
One studio responded; they thanked us for sharing our concerns and bringing awareness, and noted that due to our correspondence they would implore their legal department and would be “preparing language for all of our casting directors that will clearly state that persons who have any kind of work authorization to legally work on the project (and who meet other specific requirements for the role) may be submitted.” Unfortunately, we did not receive any further correspondence from the studio, and in November 2019 we became aware that said studio was still using discriminatory language in its casting notices.
In February 2020, after mounting pressure, said studio sent us an updated on their casting notice language which now reads, “All actors must have valid work authorization (e.g., U.S. citizen, permanent resident card, employment authorization card, O1 visa) that would permit the work on the production. Work authorization must be approved by the studio.”
These cursory changes are small wins, in this current climate corporations everywhere need to commit to making structural changes to rectify inequities and lack of diversity. I believe that this is an attainable step that Hollywood studios and major production companies can take to foster a culture of diversity and access. David Oyelowo said, “We have moments but I still don’t see the mechanism in place to foundationally sustain what will go beyond a renaissance and become the norm.” I hope to help create those mechanisms.
As I stated in my Variety “coming out” article in 2017, my goal has always been to harness the collective power of our Hollywood voices to create narratives that could change culture and to encourage entertainment companies to be more proactive in affecting policies that create access for immigrant actors to work in Hollywood.
To this end, I created #StandWithBamba, an advocacy campaign to do just that. According to the 2018 Norman Lear Center report exploring immigrant portrayals on television, undocumented Black immigrants were largely absent from entertainment television. In addition to sharing my story across the country with every platform that would have me, I’ve been pitching and developing undocumented Black immigrant narratives to change that.
As a Black and undocumented immigrant in America, this decision means that in the midst of a pandemic, economic uncertainty and a national protest for racial justice, I can continue to provide for my family and advocate for my community without the added layer of fear and anxiety of being picked up by ICE and losing everything, for the time being.
Bambadjan Bamba is an actor whose recent credits include Marvel’s “Black Panther,” NBC’s “The Good Place” and Amazon’s “Bosch.”