Ruthless practicality has made Fresh Off the Boat’s Jessica (Constance Wu) a fan favorite — and, for some immigrant families, the ABC comedy’s most relatable character. But last week, the series explored the dark side of Mama Huang’s hardheaded pragmatism when she began railing against undocumented immigrants for skirting income taxes, only to discover that she was technically one herself. A permanent resident, Jessica had called immigration officials to report a small group of activists picketing outside her restaurant on behalf of the undocumented. INS bureaucrats (since Fresh Off the Boat is set in the ’90s) then informed Jessica that her failure to reapply for a green card — a legal requirement she’d been unaware of — made her residence in the U.S. outside of the law.
That episode was far from Fresh Off the Boat’s finest — it was too preachy in a way the show seldom is — but it did illustrate how arbitrary one’s legal status can feel, especially for an immigrant who has laid down decades of roots in her adopted country. More significantly, the story line made Jessica part of a small but critical trend in television, in which central characters are revealed as undocumented immigrants. Characters without the right to reside are nothing new on television, and unauthorized migrants dot current programs like The Simpsons, The Affair, True Detective, and East Los High. But if TV continues to portray the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants as part of the American experience — which they are — it’s important to feature such characters in the core cast too, in order to normalize their day-to-day existences.
In politics, undocumented immigrants have had a rough couple of years, with Donald Trump’s campaign persistently painting every last one of them as violent criminals whom should be tracked down and deported. But on scripted shows like Jane the Virgin (The CW) and Superstore (NBC), unauthorized migrants are making their way toward center stage. And we can soon look forward to series wholly devoted to the issue of undocumented immigration. Currently in development are a pair of dramas about the aftereffects of deportation: the Party of Five–esque family saga called Casa (The CW), about a group of six siblings that care for one another after their parents are repatriated, and a loosely biographical legal series called In the Country We Love (CBS) starring Diane Guerrero as a corporate attorney who starts taking on immigration cases after it’s revealed that she herself is the child of deported parents.
Until then, though, we should appreciate the thoughtful headway made by Jane the Virgin and Superstore, each of which has been instrumental in humanizing undocumented immigration with sensitivity, nuance, and humor. Jane the Virgin has taken the more traditional path; like Ugly Betty before it, the show revealed an elderly and sympathetic parental figure — in this case, Jane’s grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll) — as having lived in the U.S. for decades without authorization.
An acknowledged master at playing the heartstrings, Jane made us feel the chronic anxiety Alba had lived with all those years, as well as the fear (mostly of never being allowed back in the U.S.) that has kept her from applying for citizenship, since outing herself as undocumented means handing her fate over to a toss-up between legal residence and deportation. Later, the series went further in a critique of “medical repatriation,” in which Alba was hospitalized in a coma and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and her mother (Andrea Navedo) were told that the older woman could be deported as soon as she woke up. Never shy about wading into politics, that hour of Jane literally stopped the show for a few seconds for an overt call for immigration reform. Rarely has mainstream pop culture tackled unauthorized migration with so much political boldness and erudition.
The newish comedy Superstore is nowhere near as fiery or as learned, but its normalization of undocumented immigration via Mateo (Nico Santos), a clerk at the Walmart-like Cloud 9, is just as vital. If Alba is the everywoman in the fight for the recognition of unauthorized migrants’ humanity, the gay, chubby, four-eyed, competitive, passive-aggressive, Filipino-American Mateo is simply himself. Superstore presents Mateo as just another one of the weirdos half-attentively toiling away at Cloud 9 — who just also happens to be undocumented. (He didn’t discover his unauthorized status until he’d been working at the store for a while.)
And so, when Cloud 9 doubles as a polling place on Election Day in last week’s ballot-themed episode, Mateo spends his entire shift trying to get his hands on an “I Voted” sticker to disguise his legal status in a B-plot that fit in with the rest of the character’s absurd obsessions and hapless secretiveness. That Mateo is on a sitcom feels all the more notable, for stories about undocumented immigrants usually run more dramatic (for many valid reasons) in ways that can make characters sympathetic but not necessarily relatable. (A bonus: Mateo’s Asian background reflects the global diversity of unauthorized migrants beyond Latinx groups.) Often petty, sometimes annoying, and never saintly, Mateo is perhaps our culture’s most progressive undocumented-immigrant character — more burdened than most, yes, but also an undeniably regular person whose flaws are just as harshly illuminated by his workplace’s fluorescent lights as anyone else’s.