Half of Latino Immigrant Characters on TV Are Portrayed as Criminals, Study Finds (Exclusive)

NCIS: New Orleans Still Undocumented Episode - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

The statistics are part of Define American’s media reference guide for immigration-related content.

Define American, the immigration nonprofit founded by Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, has released its first-ever media reference guide for writers, directors and producers.

Immigrants and Immigration: A Guide for Entertainment Professionals is a 19-page brief that defines key terms (“blanket waiver,” “mixed-status family”) and breaks down current key issues in immigration law, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the U visa for victims of violent crimes.

“Immigration is the most controversial yet least understood issue in America today. That’s why it’s crucial for Define American to publish a resource for members of the entertainment industry to better understand immigration and more accurately portray immigrants,” says Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees, who joined Define American as its inaugural entertainment media director last summer. “These tools are written specifically for creative professionals, and we hope they will lead to increased representation and more humanized storytelling in television and film.”

In addition to the guide, Define American has released a scorecard on the state of immigration representation on television, taken from The Opportunity Agenda’s study of 40 popular broadcast, cable and streaming shows that aired between April 2014 and June 2016. That report found that immigrants were underrepresented with just 6 percent of roles in the sampling (while comprising 17 percent of the U.S. population). However, they are overrepresented as criminals, with half of Latino and a quarter of Middle Eastern immigrant characters shown engaging in criminal activity. In real life, U.S. census and American Community Survey data has found that immigrant males between the ages of 18 and 39 are approximately half as likely to be incarcerated as their native-born counterparts.

The guide also outlines four best practices for content creators who are crafting narratives about immigrants:

Consult with the undocumented community. Listen to stories or speak to individuals from the specific culture being portrayed, in order to ensure accuracy of characters and storylines.

Seek expert opinions. Define American’s Entertainment Media team, which developed the guide, provides networks and production companies with consulting services, including reviewing scripts and connecting writers with the immigrant communities they seek to portray.

Be aware of privacy concerns. Undocumented immigrants face potential legal risk, including deportation, in revealing their stories, so entertainment and media professionals should be careful about identifying individuals who choose to speak with them.

Move beyond fear-based storytelling. Many storylines involving immigrants in film and television either portray them as fearsome (terrorists and criminals) or fearful (constantly living under the threat of discrimination and deportation). Consider creating more nuanced and humanized portrayals, including using comedy to challenge stereotypes.

“We live in a culture that makes it easy to call people out for getting something wrong without offering any sort of solution,” says Define American entertainment media manager Kristen Marston. “It is our hope that in addition to serving as a trusted resource, this guide will encourage storytellers to uplift characters whose stories are just as diverse as the estimated 43 million immigrants, documented and undocumented, living in our country.”

Define American’s guide comes as this TV development season is seeing a wave of immigration-related projects, including reboots of Party of Five and Roswell that will both feature immigrant leads. Meanwhile, Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez has set up CBS’ Have Mercy, about an immigrant doctor who has to work as a nurse’s assistant in the U.S., and The CW’s Illegal, about an all-American teen who discovers he is actually undocumented. They join an untitled ABC/20th Century Fox TV comedy about a white family providing sanctuary to their undocumented nanny’s family; CBS’ Welcome to Maine, about a Maine family working alongside a recent immigrant and his daughter; Fox’s In the Country We Love, about a family deported to Colombia; and Jonas Cuaron’s adaptation of DREAMer journalist Karla Corenjo Villavicencio’s manuscript Undocumented America, which is being developed by Makeready and seeking a network.