Define American’s guide to creating genuine immigration TV and movie flicks

We got hold of Telling Authentic Immigrant Stories: A Reference Guide For The Entertainment Industry from Define American, a non-profit organization committed to humanizing immigrants through media.

Why do genuine immigrant stories count? Define American’s research found that TV shows with nuanced immigrant characters and immigration storylines could shift attitudes and inspire people to real-life action.

Grey's Anatomy

If you have seen immigrant stories from the episodes of ABC-Disney’s Grey’s Anatomy, NBC’s Superstore Hulu’s East Los High, most likely Define American was consulted to give a realistic representation of the undocumented immigrants. Common themes in the entertainment industry include financial instability, housing insecurity, fear of targeting by the government and community members, violence, and racism.

East Los High

The group would like to end the “stereotype” narrative where fear-based stories are overrepresented. Undocumented immigrant portrayals on television and in the movies center on fear of deportation or causing fear when they are depicted as lawbreakers or terrorists.

For a neutral terminology, the preferred terms are ‘undocumented,’ or ‘unauthorized’ immigrant. Using ‘illegal’ or ‘alien’ is considered dehumanizing.

For a neutral terminology, the preferred terms are “undocumented,” or “unauthorized” immigrant. Using “illegal” or “alien” is considered dehumanizing.

Define American’s research also discovered that the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants are the most underrepresented immigrant group on television. But by the year 2055, the Pew Research Center foresees that Asian Americans will be the largest immigrant group in the US. Hence, there is a call to truthfully reflect the diverse Asian diaspora on the screen.

Also, not all Asians are “crazy-rich” because approximately 28 percent of Asian American immigrants are low-income.

The 23-page reference guide suggested six things to consider when creating projects about immigrants.

  1. Hire more immigrants. Gathering the creatives such as writers, cast, and crew members who are reflective of the material and reflective of the world today can bring varied perspectives and authenticity to a project.
  2. Engage with immigrant communities. If a culture or community is outside of your own, speak to the authentic members of the community, especially one you plan to portray so the characters, settings, and storylines are accurate.
  3. 3. Seek an expert opinion. There are a lot of issues about immigration that not all can easily grasp. To counteract misinterpretation, consult experts who represent the community when conceptualizing and writing the storylines of undocumented immigrants.
  4. Focus on universal themes and bondedness. Showcase how connected and shared immigrant experiences are. The need to belong, to be free, to make a difference, and to find love are some examples.
  5. Be sensitive to risk and privacy. In coming forward with their personal stories and struggles to the news media and entertainment, many people try to hide their immigration status due to risk of deportation.
  6. . Empower your immigrant characters to take control over their own narratives. Most immigrants who receive support are more resilient. They have the ability to overcome great adversity or hardships and do not need any rescuing.
Nayah Damasen in Grey's Anatomy Beautiful Dreamer episode

In reshaping public opinion, the producers of Grey’s Anatomy episode, Beautiful Dreamer, organized a writer’s meeting with undocumented Americans, including medical students, to hear first-hand and fact-check the experiences of the immigrants.

Nico Santos in Superstore

Nico Santos who played Mateo on NBC’s Superstore shared his experiences as an actor in his past interview with Define American. “To be able to play as gay and Filipino, and the whole undocumented storyline was amazing coz I’m an immigrant,” he muses. “I wasn’t undocumented but a lot of my family members were at some point undocumented so it’s something that is close to my heart and I know all about.”

Nico Santos (left) in Crazy Rich Asians

Santos was part of Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood’s first all-Asian cast movie in 25 years.

Documented by Jose Antonio Vargas

“We are making great strides forward—more diverse and equitable hiring in front of and behind the camera, more inclusive stories, more immigrant writers—but we still have much work to do,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American. “We invite you to use this guide as a starting point to help you navigate your characters’ journeys.”