What “Fresh off the Boat” Got Right – and Wrong in Their Immigration Episode

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What "Fresh off the Boat" Got Right – and Wrong in Their Immigration Episode

Undocumented narratives are hard to explain in a sitcom format, but crucial details and complexities are missing from this episode.

Fresh off the Boat, the ABC family sitcom loosely based on the memoir of chef and food personality Eddie Huang, dove deep into political waters with the fourth episode of the third season, “Citizen Jessica.”

The episode begins when Louis, a patriotic Taiwanese-American restaurant owner played by Randall Park, volunteers  his business as a polling place. It is also revealed that an employee of the restaurant named Hector, played by Noel Gugliemi, avoids paying taxes by learning about loopholes.

As Louis and his wife, Jessica, played by Constance Wu, learn more about the election, they find out about a controversial immigration bill. Jessica’s public support of the bill leads to Hector’s public protest of it, which results in Jessica calling INS. After apprehending Hector for being undocumented, INS informs Jessica that her permanent residency has lapsed.

This begins a conversation between Louis and Jessica about the value of citizenship when weighed against the burden of application fees, the test, and screening process.

Later in the episode, restaurant employees fear that Hector has fled the country, causing Louis to the make the case to his wife why Hector should stay. He emphasizes how Hector was raised here, and loves this country. He also says that he’s a hard worker, and wasn’t involved in the decision to come here – it was his parents’.

While we salute Fresh Off the Boat for recognizing the hardworking nature of immigrants– after all, immigrants are twice as likely to start a business than natives are – the argument reinforces  the trope of “The Good Immigrant.” To make his case to his wife, Louis is only emphasizing a narrow set of positive characteristics – characteristics that fail to acknowledge the many layers of someone’s personhood.

The episode ends when Jessica is able to get her immigration lawyer to address Hector’s problem. His solution is vague, and involves  paying taxes, as well as returning to Mexico for 30 days to reapply for his visa. In reality, there are millions of people who are currently awaiting a decision on their visa application, a process that can take over 20 years. But before someone who has been in the country illegally  can apply for the visa, they must wait through a ban as long as 10 years!

This myth of an easy solution to immigration problems using a “touchback” method, is one that has been touted by many seeking to trick people into self deporting, or by those seeking to mislead the public about immigration. If it were that easy, there would not be 11 million people here without authorization.

While Fresh Off the Boat  has good moments, like when Louis insists on using “undocumented,” instead of “illegals,” there is room for improvement. Undocumented narratives are hard to explain in a sitcom format, but crucial details and complexities are missing from this episode. We hope that they revisit immigration law, and pay closer attention to the heartbreak and frustration of our outdated immigration process.

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