Hollywood's Immigrant 'Dreamers'

Thanks to Obama's DACA program, hundreds in the industry work legally at places like Fox, PBS and NBCUniversal. Some may end up being the next great actor, director or studio head — but not if the president has his way. Worries one, "Is today the day he decides to spontaneously change the trajectory of my life? Or am I good for another 24 hours?"

When Victor Zuniga was 12, he and his younger brother took a train from their home in Mexico City to Tijuana, where they waited in a safe house for a woman who would pose as their mother to shuttle them across the border. Zuniga remembers falling asleep in the car: "I woke up, and the first thing I had was a Happy Meal from McDonald's." The next day, the woman drove the boys to Los Angeles to meet their parents, who had left to work in the U.S. to lift the family out of debt.

Zuniga, now 28, spoke virtually no English when he entered junior high in Santa Barbara, but was fluent by ninth grade. And by the time he attended Cal State Northridge, he had discovered graphic arts could be a career. His college graduation coincided with President Barack Obama's June 2012 executive action called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

DACA provides renewable two-year work permits and temporary Social Security numbers to so-called "Dreamers": immigrants who were under 30 in 2012 and were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; who have either finished high school or are still enrolled; and who have stayed out of legal trouble. Zuniga was hired for his first full-time job out of college on his assurance that his DACA application would be approved ("I wasn't sure, but [the employer] took me in," he recalls), and by the time he landed a job in 2015 at upstart Hollywood ad agency Bond — designing posters for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Game of Thrones and War Dogs — his DACA status was renewed and his immigration status was a nonissue: "It didn't even come up. It felt normal."

The new normal under the Trump administration could be very different, a fact that is causing distress in the industry's immigrant community and among many of its leaders. At Disney's annual shareholder meeting March 8, CEO Bob Iger, who sits on President Donald Trump's business policy forum, called open immigration "vital": "I happen to believe that this company has benefited over the years in so many different ways, as has this country, [from] an open and fair and just immigration policy."

And undocumented immigrants are a key piece of the puzzle, says veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Chris Weitz, who co-wrote Rogue One and directed A Better Life, the 2011 film about an undocumented father. "No matter what you think about policy, they are here and contributing to our society," says Weitz, who points to DACA recipients in particular. "They are Americans and provide insight into the immigrant experience. These kids are underrepresented in our popular culture" — at a time when inclusiveness is discussed throughout the town as vital to keeping storytelling rich.

More than 750,000 young people in the U.S. had been approved for DACA as of September 2016. Not surprisingly, California has the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the country — a quarter of the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. — as well as the largest number of DACA recipients: 216,060 as of September. Although there is no exact count, it's likely that hundreds of DACA recipients work in Hollywood in various capacities. "I'm not sure the CEOs of the companies know there are undocumented DACA recipients in their offices," says Jose Antonio Vargas, whose 2013 film, Documented, told his own story of living without authorization in the U.S. Vargas has met DACA recipients who work at high-profile Silicon Valley companies and top Hollywood studios. "I bet the only people who know are in the HR department."

Amid the barrage of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from the White House, DACA recipients are anxious that they may lose their ability to work legally, and many worry that the extensive personal data collected in the application process could be used to find and deport them — or their undocumented family members. (In recent weeks, at least three DACA recipients have been taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], a scenario that a couple of the DACA recipients interviewed for this story likely had in mind when they asked to have their identities obscured.) During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to "immediately terminate" DACA, which critics of Obama had cited as an example of overreaching use of executive power that would encourage and reward illegal immigration. As president, however, Trump has yet to target the program. "DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me," he said in his first press conference on Feb. 17, adding that "we are going to deal with DACA with heart," before making the unsubstantiated assertion that some DACA recipients are gang members and drug dealers. (The rigorous application process includes thorough criminal background checks.)

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Cynthia Hirschhorn