Orange Is the New Black star Diane Guerrero plays a prisoner on TV, but in reality has long been a prisoner of draconian immigration laws that tore her family apart when she was a young teen.
Now the actress is speaking out about her story to help the Immigrant Legal Resource Center fight for the rights of people like her parents and brother, who were grabbed by government officials when Guerrero was at school, leaving her with no one and nothing. Here are seven scary facts about her situation — but the scariest is that this very same thing can happen to millions of other families at any time.
1. Her parent tried to gain citizenship, but got ripped off instead
After escaping dire condition in Colombia, Guerrero said her parents tried many times to gain US citizenship — but all they found were scam artists preying on desperate families like themselves. “Throughout my childhood I watched my parents try to become legal but to no avail,” she wrote in an op-ed penned for the LA Times. “They lost their money to people they believed to be attorneys, but who ultimately never helped.”
2. She lived in constant fear
Knowing her parents could be deported literally any minute, she grew up with the fear they would just disappear one day — and then they did. “I came home from school to an empty house,” Guerrero explained. “Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn’t there. Neighbors broke the news that my parents had been taken away by immigration officers, and just like that, my stable family life was over.”
3. She was left to fend for herself at just 14 years old
Since Guerrero was born in the US, she is a citizen and the government could not forcibly deport her along with her parents and older brother — but they didn’t help her, either. She was left to fend for herself at just 14 years old. “Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me,” she said. “No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own.”
4. Friends kindly helped her — but she never felt safe
Guerrero was able to stay at her beloved school thanks to a wonderful family who took care of her, but she never felt like she could let her guard down. “…they agreed for me to continue my education at Boston Arts Academy, a performing arts high school, and the parents of friends graciously took me in,” she said. “I was lucky to have good friends, but I had a rocky existence. I was always insecure about being a nuisance and losing my invitation to stay.”
5. Her heart ached every time her parents were forced to miss a milestone
“…though I was surrounded by people who cared about me, part of me ached with every accomplishment, because my parents weren’t there to share my joy,” she said. “My family and I worked hard to keep our relationships strong, but too-short phone calls and the annual summer visits I made to Colombia didn’t suffice. They missed many important events in my life, including my singing recitals — they watched my senior recital on a tape I sent them instead of from the audience. And they missed my prom, my college application process and my graduations from high school and college.”
6. Her niece has fared even worse
The actress has found success in Hollywood, but she says her niece — a toddler when Guerrero’s older brother was deported — hasn’t been so lucky. She explained, “She still had her mother, but in a single-parent household, she faced a lot of challenges. My niece made the wrong friends and bad choices. Today, she is serving time in jail, living the reality that I act out on-screen. I don’t believe her life would have turned out this way if her father and my parents had been here to guide and support her.”
7. Her relationship with her parents has never been the same
Guerrero told CNN she only sees her parents once a year and there is an emotional gulf between them. “It’s tough, you know,” she said. “We’ve been separated for so long. I feel like sometimes we don’t know each other, and that’s difficult because I’ve grown up without them and there’s things about them that are new that I don’t recognize and it just — it hurts… I love them so much and I just — I just hate that they have gone through this. And I know I’ve been by myself, but I feel like they have lived a very lonely existence themselves. I’m sorry.”