POLITICS

'Orange Is The New Black' Star Tells Her Own Moving Story To Change Minds On Immigration

Diane Guerrero shares more about her parents' deportation in a new book.
Actress Diane Guerrero began speaking out about her parents' deportation in 2014.
Actress Diane Guerrero began speaking out about her parents' deportation in 2014.

Actress Diane Guerrero didn't expect to publish a memoir at the age of 29. But she didn't expect to feel that it was necessary -- not until the push for immigration reform failed and the demonization of undocumented immigrants hit a fever pitch in the 2016 presidential race.

Guerrero, who stars on "Orange Is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin," wrote a book, out next week, aiming to show people what life is really like for undocumented immigrants. It's told from her own often-heartbreaking perspective, that of a U.S.-born citizen whose parents were deported when she was 14 years old.

In the Country We Love: The True Story of a Family Divided, co-written by author Michelle Burford, goes into detail about the failed efforts of Guerrero's parents to obtain legal status in the U.S., their multiple deportations and the effect this had on her, including her depression and difficulty in maintaining a relationship with them from afar.

Guerrero's hope is that the book will help people understand how immigration affects families and perhaps inspire them to participate in the political process.

"If I have this platform and I'm not using it for good, then what am I doing?" Guerrero told HuffPost. "I felt like I needed to share my story in order to sort of bring awareness to the issue ... because I had personally experienced this. I just couldn't see another person on CNN talk about this issue who actually hasn't experienced it or doesn't know anybody who has gone through it. I wanted to be involved."

Guerrero, who has been involved with the advocacy groups Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota, first wrote about her parents' story in a Los Angeles Times op-ed published in November 2014.

I just couldn't see another person on CNN talk about this issue who actually hasn't experienced it or doesn't know anybody who has gone through it. Diane Guerrero

Her book reveals more about her family. Her parents and older brother were undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1981, several years before she was born in New Jersey. Her mother was deported three times, the first when Guerrero was in sixth grade. She came back to the U.S. after about two months, but was deported again soon after.

Guerrero's mother returned to the U.S. again in early 1999. Her older brother was deported that year. Her parents kept trying to obtain legal status, taking English classes and computer classes, and paying thousands of dollars to a man who claimed to be a lawyer but was actually a scammer.

In one scene of the book, Guerrero and her father go to visit an immigration attorney, only to find his office empty and the nameplate outside his door gone. She writes that seeing her father discover that he had been tricked was something that "still haunts [her] to this day." He had worked extra hours for two years and depleted most of the family's savings to pay the man, only to be left with nothing.

Both of Guerrero's parents were picked up by immigration agents in 2001, when she was 14 years old. They haven't been able to return since, even though their daughter is a U.S. citizen and at the time was a minor.

It takes years and years for someone to even get a visa. ... There's really no clear path for citizenship. Diane Guerrero

That's why immigration reform is needed, Guerrero said.

"It takes years and years for someone to even get a visa. ... There's really no clear path for citizenship," she said.

Guerrero lived with friends' families after her parents were deported -- she didn't want to go to Colombia and claims that child services authorities never checked in on her -- and then went to college. She struggled with depression and contemplated suicide, all while drifting away from her parents.

She eventually got help with her depression and pursued acting, getting a big break when she was cast as inmate Maritza Ramos on the Netflix show "Orange Is the New Black."

There have been deportation-related storylines on both "Orange Is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin," in which she plays Jane's best friend, Lina. The immigration story on "Jane the Virgin" was particularly political. Jane's grandmother is in a coma and the family is told she will be deported when she wakes up -- something called "medical repatriation" -- and the show freezes with the words "Yes, this really happens. Look it up. #immigration reform"

One episode of "Jane the Virgin" offered some strong commentary on immigration laws.
One episode of "Jane the Virgin" offered some strong commentary on immigration laws.

Guerrero said she's glad the two shows have tackled an issue that's so personal for her. "I'm happy about it because that means I'm in some projects and productions that are socially conscious and socially aware," she said.

Meanwhile, her advocacy work has helped improve her relationship with her parents, Guerrero said.

"Before, part of the trauma and depression caused me not to talk to my folks and not to want to deal with the issue," she said. "But now that I'm dealing with the issue, we've become closer."

Guerrero declined to say whom she is supporting in the presidential race, other than to say that person will be a Democrat. The rhetoric around the Republican primary, particularly from front-runner Donald Trump, is hard to hear but also motivating, she said.  

"All I hear is just ignorance and an opportunity to go out there and change people's minds," she said.

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