As much as immigration laws in the U.S. have been changing recently, the topic of immigration reform is still fairly taboo. The U.S. is a country built entirely by immigrants, and the American economy still heavily depends on millions of workers who have left their home countries. But what keeps the majority of illegal immigrants from speaking up is the fact that they risk deportation just by making themselves known.
So when actress Diane Guerrero publicly announced that her family had been deported when she was a teenager, it wasn’t just another celebrity “confession” intended to drum up press. Guerrero is an actress on the Netflix hit TV show “Orange Is the New Black,” and she recently discussed her family’s struggle with U.S. federal immigration laws. Although Guerrero herself is an American citizen, she told CNN that her parents and older brother were all living in the U.S. illegally.
When Guerrero was 14 years old, she came home after school one day to find that all three family members were gone. “[The] lights were on and dinner had been started,” Guerrero explained, “but my family wasn’t there.”
Neighbors later told her that her family had been caught by law enforcement officials and were being sent back to their home country of Colombia.
It may come as a shock to many Americans, but Guerrero’s story is not one-of-a-kind. Over one million immigrants receive green cards each year, but countless others end up being sent back to their impoverished home countries because they don’t meet the criteria for American citizenship. It’s very common for families to be split apart, like the Guerrero family, because parents and older children live in the U.S. illegally, while younger children born in the U.S. are automatically granted American citizenship.
The story behind Guerrero’s struggle with immigration laws comes at a crucial time; it’s no coincidence that she came forward with her story just before President Obama is set to deliver a speech regarding new immigration laws. Each year, the President works with Congress to determine the maximum number of foreign refugees who will be granted asylum in the U.S., but the issue of allowing illegal immigration is often much more complicated.
If Obama’s reform plan for illegal immigration laws is passed by Congress, it’s possible that millions of people already living in the U.S. illegally could be granted official American citizenship. But until legislation addresses the issue, it will be up to people like Guerrero to tell their own stories about immigration and remind Americans that immigrants have always been an important part of the country’s foundation.