When Victor Zuniga was 12, he and his younger brother took a train from their home in Mexico City to Tijuana, where they waited in a safe house for a woman who would pose as their mother to shuttle them across the border. Zuniga remembers falling asleep in the car: “I woke up, and the first thing I had was a Happy Meal from McDonald’s.” The next day, the woman drove the boys to Los Angeles to meet their parents, who had left to work in the U.S. to lift the family out of debt.
Zuniga, now 28, spoke virtually no English when he entered junior high in Santa Barbara, but was fluent by ninth grade. And by the time he attended Cal State Northridge, he had discovered graphic arts could be a career. His college graduation coincided with President Barack Obama’s June 2012 executive action called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
DACA provides renewable two-year work permits and temporary Social Security numbers to so-called “Dreamers”: immigrants who were under 30 in 2012 and were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; who have either finished high school or are still enrolled; and who have stayed out of legal trouble. Zuniga was hired for his first full-time job out of college on his assurance that his DACA application would be approved (“I wasn’t sure, but [the employer] took me in,” he recalls), and by the time he landed a job in 2015 at upstart Hollywood ad agency Bond — designing posters for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Game of Thrones and War Dogs — his DACA status was renewed and his immigration status was a nonissue: “It didn’t even come up. It felt normal.”
The new normal under the Trump administration could be very different, a fact that is causing distress in the industry’s immigrant community and among many of its leaders. At Disney’s annual shareholder meeting March 8, CEO Bob Iger, who sits on President Donald Trump’s business policy forum, called open immigration “vital”: “I happen to believe that this company has benefited over the years in so many different ways, as has this country, [from] an open and fair and just immigration policy.”
And undocumented immigrants are a key piece of the puzzle, says veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Chris Weitz, who co-wrote Rogue One and directed A Better Life, the 2011 film about an undocumented father. “No matter what you think about policy, they are here and contributing to our society,” says Weitz, who points to DACA recipients in particular. “They are Americans and provide insight into the immigrant experience. These kids are underrepresented in our popular culture” — at a time when inclusiveness is discussed throughout the town as vital to keeping storytelling rich.
More than 750,000 young people in the U.S. had been approved for DACA as of September 2016. Not surprisingly, California has the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the country — a quarter of the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. — as well as the largest number of DACA recipients: 216,060 as of September. Although there is no exact count, it’s likely that hundreds of DACA recipients work in Hollywood in various capacities. “I’m not sure the CEOs of the companies know there are undocumented DACA recipients in their offices,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, whose 2013 film, Documented, told his own story of living without authorization in the U.S. Vargas has met DACA recipients who work at high-profile Silicon Valley companies and top Hollywood studios. “I bet the only people who know are in the HR department.”
Amid the barrage of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from the White House, DACA recipients are anxious that they may lose their ability to work legally, and many worry that the extensive personal data collected in the application process could be used to find and deport them — or their undocumented family members. (In recent weeks, at least three DACA recipients have been taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], a scenario that a couple of the DACA recipients interviewed for this story likely had in mind when they asked to have their identities obscured.) During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to “immediately terminate” DACA, which critics of Obama had cited as an example of overreaching use of executive power that would encourage and reward illegal immigration. As president, however, Trump has yet to target the program. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” he said in his first press conference on Feb. 17, adding that “we are going to deal with DACA with heart,” before making the unsubstantiated assertion that some DACA recipients are gang members and drug dealers. (The rigorous application process includes thorough criminal background checks.)
As a teenager in small-town Ohio who came to the U.S. from Chile at the age of 12, Daniela Pierre-Bravo dreamed of launching her career through NBCUniversal’s page program. Knowing she’d need solid experience to be competitive, she applied for internships at Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment and at MTV/Viacom during her junior year at Miami University of Ohio, using a New York address. “One called me up and said, ‘We’d like to interview you tomorrow,’ ” says Pierre-Bravo, who bought a Greyhound ticket, rode 18 hours on a crammed bus, cleaned up at Port Authority and landed the Bad Boy and MTV/Viacom internships. Because both were unpaid, her undocumented status wasn’t a problem. Pierre-Bravo worked four off-the-books jobs that summer. “I was a baby-sitter, a pet-sitter, worked at a bar and in club promotions,” she says. “I’d have a 45-minute lunch break and lose 20 minutes to go walk a dog to make some money.”
By the next year, when Pierre-Bravo was offered the page job at NBCUniversal, she had a DACA permit. She worked on the late-night shows and Saturday Night Live before landing at MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where, three years later at age 26, she is a bookings producer and is collaborating with host Mika Brzezinski on a book for millennials about navigating the workplace. Her approach always has been to just keep going, says Pierre-Bravo: “I’m used to living in a situation where you don’t know what’s coming next — you make sacrifices but don’t know if they’re going to pay off.”
Other DACA holders, such as Maribel Serrano, 29, have been hit hard with “anxiety and [have] trouble sleeping.” Serrano now is working for Latino PBS and finishing a documentary about Dreamers. “We are American kids — except on paper,” says the filmmaker, a graduate of Venice High School in Los Angeles. She worked in restaurants, hotels and as a brand ambassador at Sundance before getting her DACA status, a source of pride she worries will become a pejorative. “My fear is that ‘DACA‘ will deliberately be turned into a negative term,” she says, “when in fact it represents motivated, creative, educated people who love the country that raised them.”
Jenny Vasquez, who heads an entertainment-career mentoring program for L.A.-area students run by Big Brothers Big Sisters (and sponsored by THR), is used to seeing Dreamers’ applications. “Every year,” she says, “we have two to three mentees who are undocumented or have DACA.” One of those mentees (who asked that her name be withheld) grew up in Inglewood and was matched with a prominent female TV network head. Now a student at Loyola Marymount, she has gone on to internships at Fox and, currently, NBC Entertainment. “I’m reading scripts and just trying to sharpen my creative tastes,” says the DACA mentee, who aspires to be a development executive. Before the election, being undocumented was just in the back of her mind. Now, she begins every morning by scouring the news for word of a Trump executive order on DACA. “Is today the day he decides to spontaneously change the trajectory of my life? Or am I good for another 24 hours?”
DACA was never meant to last forever. Obama saw it as a stopgap measure, providing temporary relief for a sympathetic group of young people until comprehensive immigration reform could be passed. Of course, the House of Representatives never even voted on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that was presented in 2013, and it’s hard to imagine this Congress and President Trump enacting legislation that provides undocumented immigrants a route to naturalization. Instead, in his Feb. 28 address to Congress, Trump touted a new federal program that will publish a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants.
The Hollywood community as a whole has voiced its opposition to Trump’s immigration proposals, and for some it is personal. Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who has starred in FX’s The Bridge, says of Trump: “This man put all his money on the ignorance of people, and he won.” Bichir already was a successful actor when he overstayed a visa and took advantage of President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, which naturalized almost 3 million immigrants. He earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his portrayal of an undocumented gardener struggling to be a good father in Weitz’s A Better Life. “My Anglo friends said, ‘I had never noticed these people until I saw this film,’ ” he says. “We are immersed in our own bubbles.”
When Seth (who asked that his last name be withheld) was 12, his family immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. His parents both had work visas, but they expired. In 2010, Seth, by then a San Fernando Valley high schooler, was accepted into UCLA (this was before DACA but after 2001’s AB 540, a California law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition). To help him raise tuition for college, his teachers set up a GoFundMe-like site and brought Seth and his classmates to a taping of The Price Is Right. “We were wearing shirts that said ‘Seth for UCLA,’ ” he recalls. Host Drew Carey asked about the shirts, then contributed $5,000 to Seth’s college fund. In his junior year at UCLA, he was accepted into the university’s film school.
Getting real-world experience was trickier. When applying for a PA gig on The Voice, Seth, now 24, left his Social Security number blank, claiming he was an international student who didn’t need the money. He was granted DACA in 2014 and today has a full-time job as an assistant editor — one film he worked on premiered at Sundance. “They asked if I had legal authorization to work in the U.S.,” he says. “I didn’t tell them it expires in six months.” When he first got DACA, Seth was open about his status, but now he keeps it quiet. “It’s like stepping into the closet again, going back into the shadows,” he says. “To keep improving as a filmmaker, I need jobs in the field.”
The hard truth is that for most DACA recipients, like other undocumented immigrants, there is no easy route to naturalization. Traditionally, family petitions (a child with legal status petitioning for a parent or vice versa) or marriage have been the favored paths. But “it’s not straightforward; it’s case by case,” and under Trump, it’s subject to change, says David Gardner, an L.A. immigration lawyer who regularly works with clients in film and TV. Argentina-born Fabian Caballero, 26, an editor working on The Interpreter, a film that follows Afghan and Iraqi translators who assist U.S. forces (the documentary received a $125,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2016), has had DACA status since 2013. He recently married his American girlfriend, and is now hoping to secure the paperwork to travel to his brother-in-law’s wedding in Europe next summer. (Contrary to popular belief, marrying a U.S. citizen doesn’t automatically yield a green card, especially for the undocumented.) “It’s just now everything seems so sketchy,” he says. “Non-criminals with green cards are being denied entry.”
DACA recipients clearly enjoy privileges the rest of the undocumented community do not. Some believe the term “Dreamers,” like DACA itself, unfairly elevates children over parents whose dreams brought them to this country. When DACA passed, “it was really exciting but also heartbreaking,” says Irving Pineda, 28, a Playhouse West-trained actor and DACA recipient. “The folks who had pioneered this movement did not benefit at all. They had aged out.”
Philippines-born journalist-turned-activist Vargas, now 36, missed the DACA age cutoff by a few months. He came to California at age 12, when his mother sent him to live with his grandparents. After learning English from watching The Golden Girls, he started his journalism career at the San Francisco Chronicle and shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings while at The Washington Post. In 2011, he wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine outing himself as undocumented and in 2013 released Documented with CNN Films. Currently, Vargas runs Define American, a nonprofit that utilizes storytelling to debunk myths about immigration. He has had undocumented and “DACAmented” people present stories to WGA members to help expand their understanding of the immigrant experience. Although it’s illegal for him to take a staff job, notes Vargas, he can create jobs for Americans. “It’s actually legal for me to be a business owner.” He employs 15 people, two of whom are DACA recipients. “You can’t hire me,” he quips. “But I can hire you.”
If any stereotype is rooted in reality, it may be that Dreamers are driven and industrious. “It’s not like I started with DACA. I’ve always had an obstacle to try to work around,” says Zuniga, the Bond graphic designer. If DACA is eliminated, he says he will freelance, work as a private consultant or maybe start a small firm. “I love what I do. I don’t see myself doing anything else,” he says. Despite his fears, and because of them, Zuniga is open with his co-workers about his immigration status. “Even if they don’t ask me, I tell them,” he says. “I feel like if they know actual people in my situation, it might turn on something in their brains to say, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to do something.’ ” After the election, his co-workers’ awareness of Zuniga’s status proved helpful, he says: “I got people telling me, ‘Hey, dude. If things go down, you can hide in my house.’ “
This story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.