Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN, October 11, 2020
ICE agents raid a big-box store, racing down the aisles to apprehend an employee. A DACA recipient who’s a doctor frets over her future. And a family separated by deportation struggles to connect on the phone.
These scenes on TV shows aren’t just quick plot twists ripped from the headlines in the age-old tradition of primetime television. They’re part of a deeper effort behind the scenes to shape new immigrant characters and storylines.
And an advocacy group known as Define American is leading the charge.
Their hope: That changing the conversations in Hollywood’s writers’ rooms will pave the way for immigration policy changes in Washington, too.
“This is long-term work,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, Define American’s founder. “This is not like, ‘How do we pass a bill next month?’ This is, ‘How do we create a culture in which we see immigrants as people deserving of dignity?’ These policies don’t make sense if we don’t see immigrants as people.”
Vargas knows the power of TV to shape stories and change minds. After revealing he was an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times magazine piece, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist became a high-profile advocate and filmmaker whose documentaries appeared on MTV and CNN.
So far, Vargas says, Define American has consulted on 75 film and TV projects across 22 networks.
The organization says stories it’s shaped have appeared on NBC’s “Superstore,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico.” And they hope the list will grow.
The first time she spoke with writers from “Superstore,” Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees felt like she had to break some difficult news.
A season into the NBC sitcom, which portrays life for workers inside a big-box store, the writers had taken the plot arc of one prominent character in a direction they hadn’t anticipated when the show began: Mateo, who’s gay, fiercely competitive and proud of his Filipino heritage, discovered he was undocumented.
“They had a ton of questions,” says Voorhees, a former reality TV showrunner who’s now Define American’s chief strategy officer. Their top concern: “How do we get him citizenship?”
That day, she says, Define American’s team explained that the writers’ top question may be impossible to answer for Mateo, just as it is for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
It was a message the writers took to heart, according to Justin Spitzer, the show’s creator and then-showrunner.
Define American would bring panels of undocumented immigrants into the writers’ room, he says, sparking ideas for entire episodes with each conversation.
Today’s TV landscape is dotted with immigrant storylines.
“The Transplant” on NBC features a Syrian doctor who flees his war-torn country and starts over as a medical resident. Shows streaming on Netflix like “Never Have I Ever” and “Kim’s Convenience” portray immigrant parents with comedy and heart. “One Day at a Time,” scheduled to start airing this month on CBS, features Rita Moreno as the immigrant matriarch of a Cuban-American family. On Cinemax, “Warrior” tells tales of Chinese immigrant life in 19th-century San Francisco.
Popular shows that recently ended their run, like “Orange is the New Black” or “Jane the Virgin,” were lauded for the immigrant storylines they incorporated into their final seasons.
Do the shows we watch on TV influence what we do in real life?
For Vargas and others at Define American, that’s a key question.
And they say a recent survey they conducted as part of their study revealed promising findings.
“What about people who have no contact with immigrants whatsoever?” Sarah Lowe, Define American’s head of research asked at a recent event presenting the study to writers in Hollywood. “Our findings show that your work can actually make a difference to those people, too.
“Just like the impact that ‘Will & Grace’ had with the LGBT movement, for regular viewers of ‘Superstore,’ Mateo feels like their friend. They feel like they know him, even if they don’t know any other immigrants in their daily life.”
And the study found that the “Superstore” viewers who felt that sense of friendship with Mateo, but had little or no real-life contact with immigrants, were more likely to support an increase in immigrants coming to the U.S.
For Vargas, Define American’s recent analysis of the “Superstore” character’s impact sends an important message.
“The images we see in media are often immigrants crying, immigrants sad, immigrants tragic, as if we have this veil of tragedy all around us, when in reality, the study showed, when you actually present an immigrant in a three-dimensional way as a person, people are moved to action, to tell another friend, to post something on social media,” he says.