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Television Portrayals And The 2006 Mid-Term Elections

by Gregory Siskind

Politicians in both parties continue to try and de-humanize immigrants in this country as they play to voters' worst instincts. And "journalists" on the cable networks have raised the anti-immigrant rant to a new art form, At least in Hollywood , immigrants are often given more of a fair shake. This is especially true in television where more and more immigrant characters are taking center stage. And they’re not all legally in the US .  

Recently, for example, on the top new ABC series Ugly Betty, Betty’s father is forced to explain to his daughter that he has been using a false social security number for years because he is an undocumented immigrant. The news is a revelation to Betty. While many may not see this as being realistic, I’ve had many consultations over the years with children who only found out as adults that their parents lacked legal status. Of course, the immigration lawyer in me is wondering if Betty herself is an undocumented immigrant. Doing a little math, it seems pretty unlikely that Betty was born in the US or her father likely would have been able to become a permanent resident either through the 1986 legalization program, 245(i) or sponsorship from his two adult citizen daughters. I know, I’m overthinking this.    

The popular comedy My Name is Earl features Nadine Velazquez as the popular Catalina. Like Betty’s father, she also has a "coming out" in an episode where she reveals her illegal immigration status. The irreverent show then went on tell the character’s story of arriving in the US packed with hay in a shipping crate.  

Longtime hit ER has for several years featured storylines involving foreign physicians, nurses and patients. Goran Visnjic’s Dr. Luka Kovac character is a Croatian refugee and the facts that led to his fleeing for the US – including the killing of his wife and child –have been explored by the show’s writers. The show also devoted many episodes to several characters – including Dr. Kovac – who work in African refugee camps. The show also dealt realistically with a highly experienced British surgeon portrayed by Alex Kinsgston who has to start her medical training from scratch in the United States in order to pursue her career in this country.  

One of my favorite shows on television is 30 Days on FX, a show from Morgan Spurlock, the director of the hit documentary Supersize Me. The show explores major public issues in a unique "fish out of water" context by sending someone into a dramatically different environment. For example, the show’s premiere last year had its director and his wife move to a new city and try and live on minimum wage for a month. This year the show’s premiere focused on illegal immigration and had a Minuteman move in with an undocumented immigrant family for a month. The show did an admirable job exploring the difficult life that undocumented immigrants face.  

And it’s not just prime time television that has explored the topic. My kids watch the very popular Disney Channel show Suite Life with Zack and Cody. The series’ most recent episode dealt entirely with the naturalization of one of the regular characters and how difficult that process is.  

Late night television has poked fun of the anti-immigration blowhards in Washington. Consider this exchange from an April 2006 episode of Saturday Night Live spoofing CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 show (which has, of late, been guilty of jumping on the anti-immigration Lou Dobbs bandwagon):  

Anderson Cooper: Good evening, I'm Anderson Cooper! If you like your news rugged yet fragile, tough yet sensitive, and with icy blue eyes that say, "Yeah, this is gonna work out," you've come to the right place. Immigration. It's an issue that has our nation split. The President, John McCain and Bill Frist all unveiled plans this week. But the debate rages on. Joining us now is vocal immigration critic - Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo. Welcome, Congressman.

Rep. Tom Tancredo: Good to be here, Anderson .

Anderson Cooper: Congressman, you've referred to illegal aliens as a scourge, that threatens the very future of our nation. Pretty strong words.

Rep. Tom Tancredo: Anderson , America needs to start worrying about our jobs. Jobs that are going to illegal aliens Because if we don't do something fast, one day we're going to have to look our children in the eyes and say, "I'm sorry, Timmy, but you're never, ever going to be able to wash dishes at a restaurant." "And, Tom, Jr., you're never going to grow up and hand out towels in a men's room. " "And, little Jessica, I know it's your dream to stand at a highway exit and hand out bags of oranges - but it's not going to happen. Those jobs aren't available to Americans any more."

Anderson Cooper: There are, of course, other voices in the immigration debate. Here to discuss the socio-economic values at the heart of the immigration issue - Mexican President Vincente Fox.

Vincente Fox: Hello, Onderson! [ audience screams their approval ]

Anderson Cooper: Mr. President, you believe that there's a compromise to be struck on this issue, correct?

Vincente Fox: Well, yes, Onderson, I understand that illegal aliens are a serious issue. But, let me put it to you like this: We are neighbors. The good kind. The one who say, "Hello, neighbor!" Remember? You scratch our backs, we buy your cars. Neighbors!

Anderson Cooper: Congressman Tancredo, do you actually think it's realistic to shut down our borders with Mexico ?

Vincente Fox: Yes, I do, Anderson . It's very simple. We're just going to build a 700-mile long wall across the entire length of the Mexican border.

Anderson Cooper: 700 miles - that's a very long wall. It sounds like it would be very expensive to build.

Vincente Fox: Yeah, you would think so, Anderson, but it's not. Now, I can't go into specifics, but, suffice it to say, we've found a labor force willing to get the whole job done at about a fifth of the cost. We're very excited about it. They don't need healthy insurance, and you just pick them up in the parking lot of the Home Depot.

Vicente Fox, by the way, was portrayed by none other than immigrant actor Antonio Banderas. That episode aired the same week as the big immigration protests around the country. In a later part of the show, Banderas talks with Hispanic cast members Fred Armisted and Horatio Sanz about how they grew up with their plan to come to the US, steal American jobs, stab people and make babies.    

And then there is Craig Fergusen, host of the Late Show on CBS, who was actually an undocumented immigrant himself and who is not afraid to talk about his past. Fergusen, by the way, starred in one of the funniest immigration-themed sitcom episodes of all time when he played Drew Carey’s boss in the popular ABC series The Drew Carey Show. Fergusen pressures Drew to go to Vermont with him to engage in a fact gay marriage in order to get a green card.  


The election is getting closer and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the US House of Representatives will be won by the Democrats. Many Republicans thought they would "own" the immigration issue by taking a hardline position proclaiming their opposition to an "amnesty" and advocating for the building of a 50 foot-high wall along the US and Canadian borders. But this issue is not playing as well as the anti-immigrant politicians hoped.  

Polls are showing that Democrats are trusted more on the immigration issue. And only a small portion of the public – just 7% according to one recent poll – consider immigration the most important issue this election cycle. Regardless of who wins the election, members of Congress will have a hard time making the case that this election gave them an anti-immigration mandate. That will especially be true if Congressman John Hostettler, the very anti-immigration chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee loses his seat, something that is now looking very likely.  

That’s not to say that immigration is still not factoring in to the campaigns. Just about every candidate in the country has been talking about how much they will do to "secure the border." But that’s like saying you’re against crime and for a strong economy. The Democratic and Republican comprehensive immigration reform bills that moved in Congress this year ALL had strong border security components. What most races are not discussing is how to deal with the large undocumented population in the US and how immigration policy in the US would look IF we were to proceed with the tough border security plans. Those are questions that don’t have simple answers and don’t neatly cut along party lines. Hence, the question tends not to be explored.  

There was also a rather ugly immigration story this week as well that involved the coming congressional election. In California , Republican Tan Nguyen is trying to unseat five-term Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. Nguyen is being investigated by the FBI for sending a letter written in Spanish to 14,000 registered Hispanic voters warning them that if they are in the country illegally or an immigrant, it is a crime to vote in a federal election and they could go to jail. Of course, only US citizens are allowed to even register to vote so the letter seems likely intended to scare eligible immigrant voters who have naturalized away from the polls. The candidate merely claimed that he didn’t authorize the mailing of the letter (an oddly common refrain this year from politicians who have been called out for over the top campaign tactics) and Republican supervisors on the county commission have refused to send a clarification letter to the 14,000 voters letting them know that they are NOT going to go to jail if they vote. Ironically, Nguyen’s over the top anti-immigrant tactic is embarrassing to his own Vietnamese immigrant community.  

Finally, a lot of candidates have figured out that millions of immigrants have naturalized in the last few years and are deeply pro-immigration. The numbers are dramatic enough that these new voters – often underrepresented in polling – could tip many close elections around the country.  

About The Author

Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind Susser's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.