Five Observations: Actress Diane Guerrero Talks Immigration

Actress of the popular TV shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin” Diane Guerrero spoke at St. Thomas on Thursday, May 10. While Guerrero is known for playing bubbly characters in both shows, she has recently gained attention from a different spotlight: In 2014, she wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times sharing that her parents, who were both from Colombia, had been deported when she was 14.

Guerrero, who was born in the United States, made the decision to stay. Abandoned by the system, she stayed with friends throughout high school, and survived on her own when she left for college.

Her talk, which was sponsored by the Diversity Activities Board, centered on her personal experience with the immigration system. As she wove her tale, she created a casual atmosphere while simultaneously making it hard to forget she has become an important voice in the conversation on undocumented immigrants, particularly in how the current system can fracture families.

Since her original editorial, she has become an advocate for immigration reform. She was named a White House ambassador for citizenship and naturalization by former President Barack Obama, and published a memoir called In the Country We Love: My Family Divided.

"We picked Diane Guerrero because she has been an advocate for issues that fall within our mission," said Yastril Nanez, president of DAB. "[She] had a powerful story to share with students who may be facing similar struggles. We could immediately tell, by the student and faculty reactions, that we had made a good decision."

Here are five observations from her talk.

We need to find a way to have these conversations

Immigration is a political hot button right now; there’s no use denying that. We also currently live in a society that feels more divided than ever by politics.

Guerrero opened the evening by talking about how she had long been afraid to debate anyone over divisive issues because she didn’t feel capable. After her parents were deported, she rarely shared the story with anyone else, particularly when she went to college. When she did begin to share what had happened, she was nervous.

However, she said that, to her, there is “no greater cause than to embrace differences and respect human dignity. ... I want so much for everyone to talk about what they believe and have an honest discussion.” She said she believed that concept fit with aspects of the mission at St. Thomas, and reiterated several times she understood not everyone would agree with her, but that it was still important for the conversation to happen.

During the Q&A she advised students on how to talk with someone they don’t agree with: “If you are coming from a place of love about something you believe in, that’s enough. Be peaceful and respectful, and if people still don’t understand, that’s on them.”

Don’t be afraid to try new things – college is a good place to learn

Guerrero spoke at length about the wonderful opportunities afforded to those in college; obtaining an education was one of the reasons she chose to stay in the United States. She emphasized the great potential students have to make a difference in the world.

“You have the tools to make a difference or you wouldn’t be here,” she said, adding that being on a campus provided students with the chance to use their voices and find other like-minded individuals to work alongside. “... Your diploma might be more meaningful with social justice instilled.”

She also talked about how students shouldn’t be afraid to try new or different things, describing her own winding path as an example of how people can reinvent themselves to follow a passion and, if that doesn’t work, still try something else.

“Give yourself the OK to do something you’re afraid of,” she said

St. Thomas is a great place for those opportunities

At times, Guerrero read from the convictions of St. Thomas, praising them and paying particular attention to the tenants of dignity and gratitude.

She also highlighted the Immigration Law Practice Group at the St. Thomas School of Law and its efforts to help a 4-year-old Somali girl who was affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“You should be very proud of your school,” Guerrero told the room.

Be civically involved

Unsurprisingly, Guerrero encouraged everyone assembled to be as civically engaged as possible. She strongly emphasized the need for people to show up and vote, and also said to make sure friends and families who are eligible to become citizens do so and also exercise their right to vote.

She also told everyone to be aware of who was representing them and to attend town hall forums whenever possible (and joked that she had heard they were “lit”).

Guerrero’s story is one that resonates with many

While Guerrero said she was nervous about sharing her story, she also felt a sense of obligation to do so. On the one hand, she felt inspired by those who came forward under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, and simultaneously frustrated she didn’t see her story reflected in the national conversation.

“My story was one of the most American, but it wasn’t told,” she said. “I was frustrated that politicians talk about immigrants without trying to fix the system – we’re not just numbers.”

She said she was particularly nervous when her memoir came out, but most of the feedback was from others who had gone through similar problems.

“There are millions of children who went through the same thing,” Guerrero said. “I learned that we are a community that supports one another.”

Indeed, many of the questions during the Q&A were from those who related to Guerrero and didn’t often see their story told on a large scale.

“Your story is just as unique and powerful as anyone else’s,” she said in response to one question. “It’s not your fault that the system is broken, and we have not found a way to honor [immigrants.]”

For those who are struggling, she encouraged them to reach out, because there are resources for them.

For those who are members of the St. Thomas community, the Dean of Students Office keeps a list of Resources for Undocumented Students. The Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion Services is also available for support. Define America is a new student group on campus that uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America.