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.
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.
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.
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.
And these days, conversations about race and representation once relegated to obscurity are playing a far more prominent role. Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee recently grilled experts about diversity in Hollywood.
“There is greater awareness than we’ve probably ever seen before. … People are interested in telling diverse stories. They’re interested in telling stories that haven’t been told before that really can hit home,” Voorhees says.
But shows with more nuanced portrayals of immigrants like “Superstore,” “One Day at a Time” or “Warrior” still aren’t the norm, says Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
“We’re not telling good immigrant stories. … There’s groups that we are just not talking about because of our stereotypes of who the undocumented immigrants are,” she says.
How immigrants on TV differ from reality
That’s something Define American’s leaders say they’ve found in their research as well.
In a study released last month with the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California, researchers found notable gaps between reality and the ways immigrant stories are portrayed in TV shows.
Their analysis of 129 immigrant characters in 59 scripted shows from the 2018-2019 TV season found that half the immigrant characters on TV were Latinx, a figure roughly in line with reality. But they also found that proportionally, Middle Eastern immigrants were over-represented on television, making up around 10% of the immigrant characters on TV while comprising just 4% of the US immigrant population. About 12% of immigrants on TV are Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants, but that group is estimated to make up about 26% of the US immigrant population.
And that season, the study found there were no undocumented Black immigrants on television, even though it’s estimated there are around 600,000 living in the United States.
“The storyline right now, in the last couple years, in the minds of Hollywood – and I think the larger United States – is that undocumented immigrants equals Latinx,” Yuen says. “The reality is there are also Asian and African undocumented migrants who are also vulnerable and need advocacy.”
Correcting imbalances like these, Vargas says, is something Define American tries to do in its work.
“We need different stories,” Vargas says, “so that we can get to a point where the narrative has been created that this is an issue that impacts all races and ethnicities.”
And that, he says, could have an impact far beyond the screen where any show is streaming.
Why the shows we see matter
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.
And that’s a big reason Define American will keep pushing behind the scenes.