We Talked to an Immigration Attorney About ‘Orange Is the New Black’s ICE Storyline

'Orange Is the New Black' photo by JoJo Whilden. Courtesy of Netflix

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains major plot points from season six of Orange Is the New Black including the final episode.

The season six finale of Orange Is the New Black ended with significant highs and lows and gave us an uncomfortable look at the racial imbalance in the U.S. prison system. While there were some uplifting moments – early releases and the brief unification of cell blocks C and D – the writers managed to break our hearts while showing us the grim realities of being black and brown in the U.S. prison system. As Piper (Taylor Schilling), Sophia (Laverne Cox), and Blanca (Laura Gomez) are granted early release, any hope of Taystee’s return to the outside world vanished as she was found guilty of a murder she didn’t commit. Without someone retracting their testimony, it’s unlikely that Taystee’s truth will be revealed and justice served.

Meanwhile, as Piper, Blanca, and Sophia are exiting the prison, we get a sense that something is not right when they are split into different lines. Blanca and Piper exchange concerned looks as Blanca is placed in a line made up of mostly Latinas. As the prison doors open, Blanca breaks down in tears as she realizes her fate. She won’t be set free as originally thought, she’s instead placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Meanwhile, Diablo is seen patiently waiting for her with flowers, unaware that she won’t be coming home. It’s unclear what Blanca’s future holds for her, as her immigration status is vague.

We can only wonder what Blanca’s will face as she goes from one form of handcuffs to another. How long will she remain in ICE custody? Will she eventually be released or deported back to the Dominican Republic? “It really depends on her crime,” says immigration attorney Maria Gloria Najera. “Since Litchfield is a federal prison, Blanca must have committed a federal crime.”

It began as a minor role on OITNB, but the writers have done an excellent job of investing in her storyline through these last six seasons. In season four’s “Turn Table Turn,” we learn how Blanca ended up at Litchfield. As a live-in caregiver to a demanding and inhospitable elderly woman, we are led to believe that she and Diego drained her bank account and committed some type of elder abuse.

‘Orange Is the New Black’ photo by JoJo Whilden. Courtesy of Netflix
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However, there is still a lot we don’t know about Blanca. Is she undocumented? Did she come to the U.S. on a tourist visa, or as a Permanent Resident Alien (PRA)? What we do know is that Blanca is not a U.S. citizen and her rights to freedom are not the same as her fellow inmates.

The show’s writers may have veered from a stereotype, but also missed the opportunity to reflect a reality that mainstream media ignores.

Dominicans are the second fastest growing Latinx group in the U.S. and a majority of Dominican immigrants come to the U.S. through a tourist visa, family reunification, or employment. Compared to the total immigrant population, a greater share of Dominicans are naturalized U.S. citizens. Therefore, it’s interesting to see the immigration narrative play out through Blanca’s character, as opposed to a Mexican or Central American character, as these immigrants have higher deportation rates. Still, all the women detained by ICE in the finale appear Latina. Statistically speaking, Indian and Chinese nationals are more likely to be placed in removal proceedings than those from the DR. In this respect, the show’s writers may have veered from a stereotype but also missed the opportunity to reflect a reality that mainstream media often ignores.

If OITNB has abandoned its original timeline and now is taking place under Trump’s administration, it’s unlikely that Blanca will be able to remain in the U.S. because of her criminal record (of which we don’t really know the full extent.) Before Trump took office, many low priority undocumented immigrants (those without criminal records) were able to fly under the radar as long as they regularly reported to immigration authorities. With the current administration, the new “zero-tolerance” policy can mean immediate deportation for Latinas with or without a criminal record. This begs the question, would Blanca be facing the same fate if she were white and immigrated from a European country? “Possibly,” says Najera. “This administration has no tolerance, especially for those with criminal records.”

“Either way,” says Najera, “her case will be reviewed by ICE officers and they will determine her status. If she is a PRA and has committed a crime that makes her deportable, she will then be placed in removal proceedings. If her crime is of such a nature that it is not considered deportable, then she will eventually be released. However, if she is undocumented, then she will be placed in removal proceedings and likely be deported back to her home country, unless she has any form of relief.”

‘Orange Is the New Black’ photo by JoJo Whilden. Courtesy of Netflix
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It’s likely we will see Blanca in season seven dealing with ICE, but her fate in the country is uncertain and complex. So, what are Blanca’s options?

According to Najera, “She can apply for cancellation of removal, possibly adjustment of status, asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the Convention Against Torture (C.A.T). However, given that she was convicted of a federal offense she will probably not be eligible for many of the forms of relief available and may only be eligible to apply for relief under C.A.T. In order to qualify, she would have to prove to the immigration judge that it is more likely than not that she will be tortured if removed to her country of origin. This is a very difficult allegation to prove for anyone, let alone a person who has resided in the U.S. for many years.”

Blanca’s fight for freedom has only begun, and dealing with ICE may be more problematic than dealing with the guards at Litchfield. We can only hope that showrunner Jenji Kohanwill explore this politically charged storyline in season seven and give viewers a glimpse into immigration detention centers as our current political climate rages on.