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Out Of The Shadows, TV Star Shines A Light On Immigration

On Capitol Hill, the immigration debate is a political story. But for millions of people across the country, it is something deeper. "This is not a political issue; it is a human issue," says Diane Guerrero. "Me and my parents were a family, and now we're not. We're separated."

The American-born actress, now known for her roles in Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, was 14 years old when her parents and older brother were deported to Colombia. She remembers coming home from school to find her dad's car in the driveway and dinner on the stove, but the house empty. "At first, I did break down and cry," she says. She went to visit her parents in jail, and they gave her the option to travel to Colombia with them. Guerrero felt that she had to stay here in the U.S. "I have to finish my studies, and I have to work really hard, and try to get my family back together," she thought.

Guerrero admits that she lived "in the shadows" for years. "I could have disappeared and nobody would've known anything," she says. But as her career picked up, she felt she had to speak out. In November, she wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. "I was so scared," she remembers. "I want to be viewed like a serious actress, and I'm afraid that people are just going to see me as the poor little girl whose parents were deported when she was 14." The piece sparked some criticism, but also earned strong support from families who had been through the same thing. "That made it all worth it," she says.

Interview Highlights

On why Guerrero decided to share her story

Once I started advancing in my career, I stopped wanting to hide from my reality. And it was really difficult when people would ask me where I've come from, what my roots were, and what my childhood was like without avoiding the question, or being vague, or even lying. That's how embarrassed I felt, or afraid to share my story. I didn't think that people would understand. But as I'm coming into my own, I'm feeling I don't want to hide anymore.

On why she didn't go to Colombia with her parents

That was a lot of the response from the letter — angry people — "Why didn't she just go back with her parents?" Well, it wasn't that easy. Our financial situation wasn't stable. Anybody who lives in Colombia knows that if you don't have any money — I tell you what — you don't have many options.

On people who say, "But your parents broke the law"

The fact of the matter is that my parents were here and stayed, and tried to amend their situation. And because there wasn't really a way to do things — I suppose — clearly, this is what happened.

On whether her family situation informs her work as an artist

Absolutely. I feel like you can't really be truthful as an artist and empathize with the human experience, unless you know your truth and you're not living a lie. So I'm learning through it, and it's making me a better person, and it's making me a better artist, I think.

Diane and Michel will head to Miami later this month to hear more about how immigration is shaping the American story. Michel will host an event there in partnership with member station WLRN.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.