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These TV shows are changing the way immigrants are portrayed​
02:48 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

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.

When he first arrived in the United States from the Philippines in the 1990s, Vargas says that he – like many immigrants – got to know his new home by watching TV.

“When we get to this country, our most effective teacher is the television screen. … The way that I talk is because of all the TV and all the popular culture that I consumed,” he says. “For me, the most effective way of becoming American was being exposed to the media.”

Now the organization he founded is flipping that idea on its head.

Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas says shaping storylines on TV is an important role for his organization. "If what we can help do is introduce immigrants as human beings that are complex and nuanced, we have done our job," he says.

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.

Just as “Frasier,” “The Golden Girls” and “Will ​& Grace” helped him learn about American slang and society, Vargas says a new generation of TV shows can be a bridge, too — this time helping Americans better understand immigrants’ stories.

The view from inside the writers’ room

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.

And the show’s writers were trying to sort out what to do next.

“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.

“That it might not be possible to resolve that storyline within a season, within a few episodes, or even within multiple seasons,” Voorhees says.

The writers of NBC's "Superstore" didn't originally envision Mateo (played by Nico Santos) as an undocumented immigrant. But now the character's immigration status has become a key plot point on the show.

It was a message the writers took to heart, according to Justin Spitzer, the show’s creator and then-showrunner.

“I wouldn’t want to tell a story where say, Mateo does find this funny way that totally works and makes him a citizen. And none of that is true. I don’t think it’s good for society that we’re spreading a wrong message,” says Spitzer, now an executive producer of the show.

“I think as a viewer, if I’m watching something and even one time, I see them say something is possible that I know is impossible, that show has largely lost me.”

Instead, he says, Define American’s guidance – along with insights from immigration lawyers and even someone who worked at ICE – helped the writers shape stories rooted in reality.

Define American would bring panels of undocumented immigrants into the writers’ room, he says, sparking ideas for entire episodes with each conversation.

“It became this amazing resource for us. … Organizations like this are great. They can answer questions, but by just sitting around and talking, we can come up with stories we never even dreamed of before,” he says.

One example: an episode in the show’s second season when Mateo, desperate for a solution to his immigration woes, tries to get people in the store to assault him so he can be eligible for a visa for crime victims.

​The sixth season of “Superstore” is set to premiere on NBC later this month. Mateo still isn’t a citizen.

Awareness is growing

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.