A new study assessing the portrayal of immigrants on American television has found improvement in representation but a continued over-emphasis of criminality for immigrant characters as well as an over-proportionate focus on those who are undocumented.
The study from USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, titled Change the Narrative, Change the World: How immigrant representation on television moves audiences to action, examined depictions of 129 immigrant characters from 97 episodes of 59 scripted narrative TV shows that aired between August 2018 and July 2019 – a time in which several shows, including Orange is the New Black, Madam Secretary and The Conners responded to an increase in deportations and viewer awareness of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) with immigration-based storylines.
The study found an over-emphasis on connecting immigrants to crime: one-fourth (22%) of immigrant characters on TV were associated with criminality, and 11% with incarceration, down from 34% in 2018 but still out of step with real-world numbers. Studies by the Cato Institute and the Marshall Project in 2018 found that immigrants, regardless of documentation status, commit less crime than native-born Americans.
Television also heavily over-represented undocumented immigrants, the study found. Of TV characters with an identified immigration status, 63% were undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers, compared to only 24% of American immigrants at large.
Nearly a quarter of immigrant characters were detained by immigration authorities on TV, largely owing to major plot lines on Orange is the New Black, whose seventh season took place in a fictional immigration detention center, and Madam Secretary, which depicted the Trump administration’s family separation policy at an Ice detention facility. The Conners, the spinoff of the Roseanne reboot after star Roseanne Barr was fired for a racist tweet, included a storyline in which a character’s boyfriend was deported to Mexico after an Ice raid at the restaurant where he worked; on Superstore, an undocumented character from the Philippines was hidden by his co-workers during an Ice raid of a store where he worked, and was ultimately detained.
Half of immigrant characters on TV in 2019 were Latinx, up from 40% in 2018 and consistent with real-life numbers. Yet the study found Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants remain under-represented – 12% of immigrant characters in 2019, down from 16% the year before, despite making up 26% of US immigrants.
The study also pointed to two major oversights in immigrant representation: total invisibility of transgender or gender non-conforming immigrants and undocumented black immigrants. The number of black immigrant characters were consistent with reality – 7% on TV compared to 9% in real life – and none of the characters were undocumented. There are currently 600,000 undocumented black immigrants in the US, and a fifth of those facing deportation from the government are black.
Black immigrant characters were also absent from an increasing amount of storylines around immigration conflicts at the US southern border, although a record 5,800 African immigrants interacted with immigration officials there this year.
Though there were several LGBTQ+-identifying immigrant characters on TV in 2019 – such as on Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away With Murder, Superstore, The Bold Type, Broad City and Dynasty – none of the characters were trans or gender non-conforming.
Only a small percentage of characters identified explicitly with a religion, and a third of those were Muslim, owing almost entirely to one show: Ramy, which depicts an Egyptian Muslim family in New Jersey. The second highest (22%) was Buddhism, largely due to the characters of Fresh Off the Boat.