Immigrant characters on television are still underrepresented and largely one-dimensional, researchers found. Eleven percent of characters in the sample were immigrants, and of the 211 characters identified, nearly half had fewer than 10 speaking lines. Sixty percent were male characters, 77 percent spoke with accents (a trait often associated in entertainment with being “bad”), and 40 percent were Latinx. Meanwhile, 24 percent of immigrant characters were white, 16 percent were Asian, 11 percent were Middle Eastern, and 8 percent were black.
Read: Why do cartoon villains speak in foreign accents?
With ongoing reports about federal immigration policies concerning family separation, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and deportation dominating much of the news cycle in the past few years, it’s clear that Hollywood is attempting to tackle such relevant issues. Forty-one percent of TV immigrants in the study were undocumented, while 36 percent were green-card holders. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deportation were mentioned in 20 percent of the sampled episodes, and Latinx characters in particular were the subject of those conversations.
But this focus on characters’ citizenship statuses can be a double-edged sword if immigrants only appear in shows for the sake of a plot point or “checking off a box,” as Elizabeth Voorhees, Define American’s managing director of creative initiatives, described it.
“Something that we talk about a lot with our work within the entertainment industry is that narrative,” Voorhees said, “and how we push past that … to more humanized representations of characters that don’t just have to be single-sided—either a good or a bad immigrant—but can actually just be fully realized.”
Outside of citizenship-related story arcs, TV immigrants in the study also tended to adhere to stereotypical associations with crime, incarceration, and low education levels. Though multiple studies have shown that immigrants don’t commit more crime than native-born citizens, 34 percent of TV immigrants were linked to a past or current crime, and 11 percent of characters were mentioned in reference to a current, previous, or future incarceration (think of Blanca from Orange Is the New Black or Hector Ramirez from Season 18 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). In reality, the incarceration rate—excluding convictions for immigration offenses—for legal and undocumented immigrants is less than 1 percent, according to the Cato Institute.
For Rafael Agustín, a writer on Jane the Virgin and a formerly undocumented immigrant, these negative portrayals are even more damaging in light of the current political climate. “When the leader of the free world is saying that Latinos are criminals and rapists, and then our TV shows show that, then we have a huge problem,” Agustín told me, referring to Trump’s 2015 comments about Mexican immigrants.