Spoilers! Contains details about the seventh and final season of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” now streaming.
The most heartbreaking storylines of the final “Orange is the New Black” season happened outside the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary.
The Netflix prison drama compassionately tackles immigration through a group of characters who are sent to an ICE detention center.
Among them are freed inmate Maritza (Diane Guerrero), who’s re-arrested during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement nightclub raid and deported after learning she and her estranged mom were never American citizens.
Also targeted: Blanca (Laura Gómez), who was sent to the detention center after her release from Litchfield last season and successfully argues for her illegal-entry conviction to be overturned. She is later granted a green card to stay in the U.S. but decides to return to the Dominican Republic to be with her boyfriend.
Blanca (Laura Gomez, left) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) are faced with poor conditions at an ICE detention center in the new season of "Orange is the New Black." (Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix)
And most devastating of all, new character Karla (Karina Arroyave), a widowed mom separated from her two young sons, is forced to represent herself in court and eventually deported to El Salvador. In the series finale, she tries to cross the border into the U.S. with a group of migrants, but suffers a debilitating fall that injures her leg and is left stranded in the desert alone with an uncertain fate.
You might think these new storylines were inspired directly by recent headlines about the U.S.-Mexico border crisis and child separation. But “Orange” executive producer Tara Herrmann says the desire to tackle immigration has been percolating for a couple seasons now.
More: Orange is the New Black Season 7: Spoilers! Stars talk series finale, impact
“There’s a world where there could be an entire series about this, because sadly, the crossovers between prison and immigration processing centers are too scary,” Herrmann says. Visiting a center in Los Angeles to research and talk to people, “it was shocking for us to see how much more stark life was for these detainees than it is even for inmates. There were no personal items whatsoever, and a lack of social services. All of them were asking to see doctors and for us to pass along information to family members. Basic needs were not being met.
“This was months before the conversation really started heating up like it has been recently,” she continues. “So for us, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is real,’ and as it started progressing in the news media, too, we were validated in our feelings, sadly.”
New character Karla (Karina Arroyave, center) risks losing her kids, if deported. (Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix)
Some of the most emotional scenes in the new season focus on phone calls between Karla and her sons, as she promises to do whatever it takes to be reunited with them and urges them to take care of each other in foster care. Through the character, the writers hoped to convey the “irreparable trauma” of mothers being away from their kids.
“The injustice is that she came here for a better life, and she and her family were by all means upstanding citizens,” Herrmann says. “She was coming from a very dangerous place and didn’t want her kids to be there. And the system says, ‘It doesn’t matter. We’ll keep your kids, but you can go figure it out.’ We need a better system.”
One of the biggest hurdles facing Karla, Blanca and Maritza is the lack of access to effective legal counsel and unfamiliarity with their rights, which Gómez says is a very real problem facing many detainees.
With organizations such as Freedom For Immigrants, which is featured in the show, “the first thing they try to do is give people information about such rights, because there is an abuse of power that is occurring,” says Gómez, who was raised in the Dominican Republic. “There’s also the uncertainty that so many of these people are going through that puts them in a vulnerable position. (These characters) are like the three different faces of what’s happening to so many undocumented people.”
Ultimately, she hopes that the focus on immigration in Season 7 will help engender empathy.
“Through these fictional characters that (viewers) love, they’re getting information about a reality that is even harder, because it’s real for those people who are desperate and fleeing their countries for a reason,” Gómez says. “I hope for people to get curious and find information that’s not just whatever narrative the mainstream media wants to be sold. I wish for people for people to start talking about human beings and not just ‘illegals.’ “
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