Exclusive: Gina Rodriguez’s new ‘Dreamers’ series hopes to rid America of the term ‘illegal’

Gina Rodriguez and Rafael Agustin are teaming up on the immigrant-related series “Illegal” for the CW.
(From left: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times; Rafael Agustin)

By all appearances, Rafael Agustin had been the all-American high school student: he was class president, prom king and an honor roll student. But there was one hitch: he was also in the country illegally.

It was a discovery Agustin learned while applying for college in 1998 — before there was a program like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

“I was in shock,” the Ecuador-born writer-performer recalled during a recent phone interview with The Times. “I knew I was an immigrant — I remember a time when I didn’t speak English. But I didn’t know we were undocumented immigrants.”

Agustin, now a U.S. citizen who received his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film & Television, has channeled that experience and created a series inspired by his life about an immigrant family, tentatively titled “Illegal.” The series is in development at the CW and is expected to be an hour-long dramedy that Agustin describes as an edgy Latino version of “The Wonder Years.”

The announcement came a day after the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle DACA, which has provided hundreds of thousands of young immigrants the ability to work legally in the U.S. and a temporary reprieve from deportation.

“Illegal” is one of two immigrant-related series that “Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez has in development under an overall deal at CBS TV Studios for her I Can & I Will Productions. (The other, “Have Mercy,” is set up at CBS.)

We talked to Rodriguez and Agustin, who currently serves as executive director of Edward James Olmos’ Latino Film Institute Youth Cinema Project, about the dramedy.

What emotions were you feeling last Tuesday when it was announced Trump was dismantling the DACA program?

Rodriguez: For me personally I was just devastated. My heart breaks for these young kids that are just trying. America just seems real brutal these days. Everything that I’ve grown up with and thought America stood for has just been destroyed by this administration time and time again. I’m just so afraid for young kids who fear not having anywhere to go. I just wish I could change it all, but I can’t.

Agustin: I work with a lot of undocumented students and my friends kept texting me what can I do, what can I do? This was literally 10 hours before our [press] release. I didn’t know our release was going out Tuesday. What we had decided as a group — because I have a strong network of undocumented students who are activists — was to try to start to push Congress to pass the DREAM Act again. The only people who can help us at this point is Congress. They have to take action. And I hope that they will.

Why do you think it’s important that this story is told?

Agustin: Because it’s important to understand the complexities of immigration. When people see a face to these issues, it’s different. It doesn’t become villainizing. We’re not fake, shadow people taking jobs.

I’m just so afraid for young kids who fear not having anywhere to go.

— Gina Rodriguez, star of "Jane the Virgin"

Gina, you’ve made it your mission to bring Latino stories to the screen. What sort of responses did you get when news broke about the show?

Rodriguez: I felt like there was so much excitement and relief that somebody was in their corner trying to put their face on-screen and have them be a part of the bigger conversation, and not just constantly hidden in the corner.

When we talk about inclusivity, there are a lot of communities that aren't being discussed. And the Latino community, we have waves of Latinos doing projects — but do they get exposure? I want there to be such a plethora that you have to name us on multiple hands.

I saw a lot of kids in my feed happy that their stories — or at least an aspect — are finally getting told. I’m not just talking about DACA or undocumented. I’m talking about all Latinos in this country wanting to feel present in this country and loved and supported.

Does it feel like there’s greater pressure on the show now?

Agustin: It’s not that it’s a burden, but it’s almost like ‘We’re there with you and we’re going to do this together.’ By no means do we feel a greater pressure to make sure this show moves forward. If anything, we’re so excited to bring it to the masses.

The title could change, but talk about deciding on “Illegal.”

Agustin: I think “illegal” is a horrible, derogatory term and I wanted to address it head-on. I want this show to be a love letter on why we should no longer use this word. Let this show be the way that we as a nation are allowed to atone for our treatment of immigrants because no human being is illegal.

If you could be in a room with Congress — or if you could sit down with those who oppose DACA — what would you say?

Agustin: We as a society will be judged by how we treat our weakest and most vulnerable among us. And we cannot allow prejudice and fear to get in the way of our American values. It’s just that simple.

Rodriguez: It’s just that simple.