On Soap Operas, Immigration Takes a Place Alongside Amnesia and Evil Twins

ALL MY CHILDREN - ABC's "All My Children" stars Lindsay Hartley as Cara Finn. (ABC/EDWARD HERRERA)

ALL MY CHILDREN - ABC's "All My Children" stars Lindsay Hartley as Cara Finn. (ABC/EDWARD HERRERA)  (© 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. )

Immigration enforcement came to the fictional town of Pine Valley, Penn. recently, when a plot line on ABC’s popular soap opera “All My Children” found a jealous wife calling immigration on her undocumented Mexican rival.

Why use immigration policy as a plot device — as opposed to, say, old standbys like amnesia or evil twins?

“I’m not sure that’s something we want to comment on,” said Michael A. Cohen, Publicity Director for “All My Children.”

But as immigration becomes a more hot-button issues in the United States, visa problems have been popping up as obstacles threatening lovers and wanna-be lovers on daytime soap operas.

In the case of “All My Children,” recently-arrived Cara Finn was revealed to be Cara Castillo, a Mexican doctor who traveled to the U.S. in order to finally resolve her feelings for her ex-husband, Jake. When Jake’s current wife, Amanda, finds out, and catches wind of a plot to keep Cara in Pine Valley—through a green-card marriage to Jake’s brother Tad—she calls in La Migra.

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These developments had soap fans on online bulletin boards uncharacteristically debating immigration policy. “It’s not that easy,” wrote a poster on an AOL board about cross-country marriage. “My brother married a woman from Peru and it took two years to get her to the U.S.” Another started a long post with, “The writers probably don’t want to get into this but …” and went on to bemoan the lack of paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

Refreshingly, visa troubles on the soaps do seem to be fairly democratically distributed.

“There’s actually another show on ABC, ‘General Hospital,’ which is doing it right now with an Irish character,” says Mala Bhattacharjee, the News Editor at Soap Opera Weekly. “Same thing: She was having an immigration issue and [her boyfriend] proposed to her in the hopes of helping her with her citizenship.”

In the last few years, she says, nationalities so bedeviled have “run the gamut”: Aside from GH’s Irish lass, there was also Gabriela Moreno on “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who—paging all DREAM Act activists!—discovered she was undocumented while filling out college applications; and Ameera Ali Aziz on “As the World Turns,” who had fled Iraq. “It happens quite often,” says Bhattacharjee.

College applications aside, being undocumented in the soaps seems to be different than being so in real life. AMC’s Cara, for example, was able to get a job as a doctor at the local hospital. And ICE somehow overlooked the well-known and long-standing relationship that Ameera’s husband had had—with a man.

“There’s a lot of hand-waving anytime it comes to paperwork,” says Bhattacharjee. “The Irish character was able to leave and come back several times. Until this last time when they were like, ‘You can’t go back in the country.’ It’s like, what about the past four times?”

Immigration takes on a more somber tone when it comes up as an issue on Spanish-language telenovelas—but, interestingly, that isn’t as often as one might think.

“In many telenovelas, especially those made in the United States, the characters are immigrants, but no specific reference is made as to whether they’re undocumented or not,” says Juan Manuel Cortés, director of the U.S. edition of celebrity magazine TV y Novelas. “I don’t remember one that specifically develops getting papers as much of a plot point.”

“We don’t point out a character’s immigration status unless we are trying to make a point, to educate,” says Michelle Alban, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Telemundo, which makes telenovelas for the American market.

In 2004’s “¡Anita, No Te Rajes!,” for example, the lead character left Mexico to search for her aunt in Los Angeles. So the network developed and gave away a resource guide titled “Viviendo en USA, The Telemundo Immigrant's Guide to the U.S.”

In other Telemundo telenovelas, characters have made overland border crossings or suffered workplace accidents—circumstances seemingly a world way from those of Pine Valley’s Cara Castillo, who according to soap boards scored her job at the hospital because her skills were “so needed.”

At last look, Castillo wasn’t yet off the hook with ICE; the agent assigned to her case was questioning the coincidence of her former marriage to her fiance’s brother. (Go figure.) But, says Soap Opera Weekly’s Bhattacharjee, rest assured all will end well.

“For soaps, everything is all about romance, whether it’s an immigration marriage or someone getting amnesia or someone getting shot,” she says. “So she’ll either fall in love with her soon-to-be husband or go back to her old flame. That’s what the genre’s for and why we love it.”

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