Why You Could Be Seeing a Lot of Immigrant Stories on TV This Fall

An adaptation of Diane Guerrero’s (pictured) memoir, In The Country We Love, is up for consideration at Fox. Photo: The CW Network

On One Day at a Time’s freshman season, Elena’s friend Carmen has a big secret: Her undocumented parents had been deported to Mexico. In this season of The Fosters, a young DACA recipient is facing the threat of deportation after she participates in a college hate-speech protest and her parents are detained. Jane the Virgin’s Abuela is an undocumented Venezuelan immigrant who almost faced medical repatriation in season one. And a decade ago on Ugly Betty, family patriarch Ignacio avoided buying health insurance because he had entered the country illegally from Mexico.

Each of these stories captured distinct aspects of the immigrant experience in the United States and highlighted issues that could not be more relevant in today’s political climate: policy differences toward different immigrant groups, the emotional toll of ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the intersection of health-care access and legal status. But while the episodes made an impact when they aired, these types of stories have been too sporadic to leave much of a mark on the TV landscape and culture at large.

This pilot season could prove different. With seven projects featuring immigrants as lead characters — and their issues in front-and-center story lines — there’s a chance next TV season will offer viewers a closer look at corners of the country, and the people who live in them, that remain unfamiliar to many Americans. The first to receive a pilot order is Freeform’s reboot of Party of Five, which will feature the children of Mexican immigrants who must fend for themselves when their parents are deported to Mexico. The original creators of the popular ’90s Fox drama Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman are helming the new version.

“It’s such a present issue,” Lippman said. “It’s unavoidable and heartbreaking and it’s on the news every single night. And all these show creators are feeling that same incredibly rich source of storytelling.” Even if there’s overlap in the ideas or themes, Keyser said he thinks there’s room for all of the shows. “Nobody ever said, why are there two shows about white people and white people’s families? It’s at the heart of the debate about what this country is and what it’s going to be. It triggers all of that.”

Although the rest of the shows haven’t received pilot commitments yet, the script orders demonstrate that interest in the subject matter is growing. Lippman said she and Keyser were surprised by the high level of interest in their pilot. Under consideration at CBS are a multi-camera comedy Welcome to Maine and medical drama Have Mercy. Fox has in its pipeline In the Country We Love, a legal procedural and adaptation of actress Diane Guerrero’s memoir. The CW is reviewing single-camera comedy Rafa the Great, about a teenager who discovers his undocumented status. ABC’s single-camera comedy Sanctuary Family centers on a white family that provides sanctuary for their nanny and her family. And independent studio Makeready has hired filmmaker Jonás Cuarón to adapt DACA beneficiary Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s upcoming book Undocumented America about the diversity of the immigrant experience across the country — from New York City and Miami to Cleveland and beyond. (The book is slated for release in spring of 2019.)

Vulture spoke to the writers and producers of five of the projects about their vision for their shows and the personal issues they want to explore. Aside from Party of Five, the rest should learn within the next few weeks if pilots will be ordered.

Party of Five, Freeform

For about seven years, Party of Five co-creators Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman had been throwing around ideas for a reboot of the Fox family drama. At one point, they played with the idea of centering it on a Latino family but let it go each time, figuring “there never seemed to be a good reason to go back and do the same show,” Lippman said.

But when someone sent them a Los Angeles Times article about immigrant families trying to figure out who would take care of their children if the parents were deported, it clicked for Keyser and Lippman as a story they could tell.

In the original series, the children were orphaned when their parents died in an accident. Having living parents will change the stakes for the reboot, Keyser said. “We had spent six years writing a show about kids having to figure out how to keep a family together in the absence of their parents,” Lippman said. “Those were made-up circumstances that gave us a lot of dramatic power. But here, every day on the front page of the paper there are stories that have exactly this focus — how do families get torn apart by this horrible circumstance? We didn’t jump in with both feet until we realized there’s not only a way to tell the story that is super relevant to what’s going on, but it adds a different kind of poignancy to the story.”

For now, the eldest of the five children will be a DACA recipient and his younger siblings will be U.S. citizens. But that could change if President Trump eliminates DACA in March.

“We are at the mercy of what the government ends up doing,” Keyser said. “If it turns out that by the time we shoot and air this, the DACA kids are being sent back to the countries where their parents were born, then we’ll have to figure out what to do about it. But right now we are hopeful that the oldest child is a Dreamer. What’s interesting about this if it becomes a show, as it runs, it will be able to reflect what’s really going on in this country.”

The producers have hired Michal Zebede (Castle, Devious Maids) whose family is from Costa Rica and Panama to co-write the pilot and Rodrigo Garcia to direct. “We are looking to give some voice to original Latino voices,” Keyser said. “We are not doing this alone. We feel some obligation to say that though we are interested in it, we don’t know it in the way other people do. And to be honest about it, we need to include those voices in the process.”

In the Country We Love, Fox

Diane Guerrero, who stars on Orange Is the New Black, Superior Donuts, and Jane the Virgin, became a memoirist in 2016 after writing an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about growing up as the child of undocumented Colombian immigrants who were deported when she was 14, leaving her to raise herself in the United States with the help of some friends. Her book, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, is the foundation for a legal procedural drama CBS turned down last year and is now under consideration at Fox. Guerrero, who will play the lead role, is working with writer-producer Paul Sciarrotta (Jane the Virgin) who wrote the script. The story follows a New York City corporate attorney whose family was deported and whose past is revealed, prompting her to begin taking pro bono cases for undocumented immigrants. Before she became an actor, Guerrero studied political science, completed a paralegal program, and worked in a law office while she tried to determine whether she wanted to become a lawyer. The series will be loosely based on her experiences.

“Our hopes are that we will cover all sorts of immigration issues and really have a chance to explain and try to teach the audience what the immigration system looks like in America,” Guerrero said. “We are going to expose it for what it is — a broken system that is not working for anyone. Currently, immigration law is torn between criminal law and administrative law. We are going to incorporate story lines that expose this disparity and show the reality of injustices people face on a daily basis.”

Sciarrotta, who got to know Guerrero while working on Jane the Virgin, says her book “blew my mind.” “For me, it spoke on the micro scale of what’s happening in our nation right now,” he said. “These are stories that need to be told, and they’re often overlooked because the people who can tell them often have to live in the shadows of fear.”

Guerrero says she was inspired by the One Day at a Time episode “Strays,” in which the Alvarez family learns about Elena’s friend’s secret and helps the teen move to Texas with other relatives. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a story like that, and it really resonated with me because it reflected my own story and it was really well done,” she said. “It’s important to have a show that is dedicated to telling our country’s immigration stories in addition to having the subject brought up in story lines.”

Rafa the Great, The CW

Jane the Virgin writer Rafael Agustin was an honor-roll student, class president, and prom king in West Covina, California. His family migrated from Ecuador when he was 7 years old — his father, a pediatric surgeon, took a job at a car wash; his mother, an anesthesiologist, worked at a Kmart. Everything seemed on track for Agustin to become a lawyer or a doctor, like everyone else in his family, until he applied for college and discovered, for the first time, that he was undocumented.

“I was applying to all of the UCs and I remember one sent back a letter saying, ‘You are a perfect candidate — can you please send your real Social Security number?’” Agustin said, laughing. “I was like, Mom! What does this mean? I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it was something like, I can’t be illegal. I’m the frickin’ prom king!’”

Agustin wound up enrolling in a community college as he waited for his green card. He stayed at Mt. San Antonio College for nearly three years, and took almost every course that was offered until he stumbled into a theater class that would change his life. Eventually, he won a regional acting competition that sent him to a national competition at the Kennedy Center in D.C. “It was blocks away from Homeland Security. I was freaking the fuck out,” he said. When he and his parents returned from the trip, two packages were in the mail: his acceptance to UCLA and his green card.

While he was at Mt. SAC, Agustin joined the speech-and-debate team, where he met the team coaches: comics writer Steven T. Seagle and his wife, Liesel Reinhart. Reinhart, a professor, was the first person outside of his family whom Agustin confided in about his legal status. Her supportive reaction motivated him to start writing, and the three of them created his autobiographical, award-winning play, N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.

“I gained this sense of self-worth,” Agustin said. “I wasn’t ashamed anymore. And the two of them guided me to be a writer and to write my voice down.”

In 2015, he began writing a TV show based on his life, which he developed further at the Sundance Institute Lab Program last year as a modern-day version of The Wonder Years. Gina Rodriguez, whom he knew from his previous job as producer of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, agreed to produce it. “How blessed am I to be taken under the wing of the Khaleesi of the Latino community,” Agustin said. “After I wrote it, I realized she was the perfect executive producer for it because my voice and my story are right up her alley. Gina is ghetto wholesome, which I am too.”

Set in the late ’90s, Rafa the Great is a family single-camera comedy “all wrapped in bad N’ Sync music,” says Agustin. “What’s interesting about that time is none of us were woke. Everyone used the word ‘illegal’ freely. No one knew what undocumented students were or how to deal with them. So it’s great to be able to view something that’s so relevant today but with that arm length of time. Not much has changed. A lot of us are still that ignorant. I carry the sacrifice that my parents made to come to this country to give me a better life in my heart every day.”

Have Mercy, CBS

Queen of the South co-executive producer Dailyn Rodriguez is using her Cuban-American background to adapt the German format Dr. Illegal, about an Iranian physician who takes refuge in Germany and, unable to get his medical license, begins to illegally treat other refugee residents in his apartment building.

Rodriguez’s heroine in Have Mercy is an accomplished Cuban doctor who is unable to practice medicine when she arrives in Miami. Because foreign doctors are required to take three exams, which cost $600 each, and do six years of residency to obtain their medical license in the United States, Mercedes, the 40-something protagonist, has to settle for working as a surgical nurse’s assistant. As the political climate shifts and there is an uptick in ICE raids in her community, Mercedes turns her home into a makeshift clinic.

“It’s people in Hialeah and Little Haiti, all these people who are now undocumented and they’re scared to go to the hospital,” said Rodriguez, who previously worked on the medical drama The Night Shift. “They realize there’s a doctor in their midst, and she starts treating them illegally in her home. I don’t want to hit people over the head with politics, but I think the one thing most people can agree on is that people should be able to see a doctor. It’s my way of telling an undocumented story where I feel like people aren’t seeing these people as blatant criminals but as real humans who are suffering.”

Rodriguez, who was a junior writer on Cane, the Jimmy Smits–led drama that CBS canceled in its first season in 2007, understands the world she is creating is foreign to most of CBS’s audience. But she believes the broadcast network, which draws the most criticism for its lack of diversity, is trying to correct that. Actress Gina Rodriguez’s production company I Can & I Will optioned the German format and is co-producing Have Mercy as part of her overall deal with CBS Studios.

“CBS isn’t known to put a lot of controversial stuff on their network, and I do think they know where they stand and this is part of them attempting to change,” Rodriguez said. “When I pitched it, they loved the specificity of Mercedes’s character and her background and heart, so I hope if they do move forward with it, they will keep the character intact because it won’t work without her at the center of it.”

One reason a drama like Have Mercy could fit on CBS, Rodriguez says, is that Mercedes is a strong woman who is breaking the law for the right reasons and has the right intentions — like many of CBS’s protagonists. “For eight years we lived under Obama, who seemed to most people to be a very good person, and so in television and in entertainment we had the era of the difficult man and the anti-hero,” Rodriguez said. “And now the shift is, maybe it’s time to go back to well-meaning, heroic characters, which is what Wonder Woman is. CBS still has characters that are earnest on their shows and are not anti-heroes, and I think there’s a swath of the population that gravitates toward that. That’s why their ratings are so high. I pitched Mercedes as a Wonder Woman who is an immigrant.”

Welcome to Maine, CBS

Veteran writer-producer Austen Earl’s (9JKL, The Great Indoors) show is the only contender that won’t center on undocumented immigrants. The protagonists in his multi-camera comedy, executive produced by Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl)  are Syrian refugees who settle in a small Maine town and open a business next door to a diner owned by a longtime resident who is resistant to change.

Earl grew up in a small Vermont town and spent his summers with his grandparents in Maine. Reading about the cultural developments over the last year or so in Lewiston, Maine, caught his attention. Because of the lack of opportunities, the younger population has moved out and is being replaced by Somalian refugees. “My grandfather lived there for the last 30 years of his life but was always treated as an outsider,” Earl said. “If you haven’t lived there for hundreds of years, you’re a ‘flatlander’ or ‘summer folk,’ so they’re slow to embrace anybody who’s not them. The future of the whitest state in America is turning to this new workforce, and it’s just wildly interesting to me.”

Because anti-immigrant sentiment has grown stronger nationally since President Trump was elected, Earl says he’s more nervous about making the show now. “But it also excites me,” he said, “because it’s important to tell real stories about the great people that are trying to come to our country because that’s what we’re founded on. My goal is not to tell some huge political story. It’s more to just tell human stories about people who are very different than us and to humanize people that we are demonizing. Typically, the most you see Muslims represented on TV are like on Homeland, where you always see them as the villain. The majority of Muslims in America are doing great things, and I love the idea of doing a show that tells real stories about them rather than just seeing them as enemies or plotting some sinister crime.”

Immigrant Stories Could Be Fall TV’s Biggest Trend