The stories of migrant children in South Texas — separated from their parents at the border, detained in makeshift facilities — have probably stirred something in all of us, but for Diane Guerrero, the feeling has been especially agonizing.
When she was 14, Guerrero, the actress best known for her roles in “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” was separated from her immigrant parents, too. In 2001, Guerrero was a high school student in Boston when she came home to an empty house. Her parents, undocumented immigrants from Colombia, had been taken by immigration officers — her mother while preparing dinner, her father as he pulled into the driveway after work. The couple, who had moved to the United States two decades earlier, had overstayed their visas, and their efforts to become legal citizens had failed.
Guerrero, who was born in the United States, was terrified she would be taken away, too, or sent to foster care. She locked the doors and hid under her bed, phone in hand. Friends and neighbors took her in, and Guerrero went on to finish high school and college before landing her first TV role in 2011. Her parents never returned to the United States.
Guerrero, who next month will publish a memoir for children about her experience, expressed empathy for the families ensnared by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
“I know what it feels like, and it breaks my heart,” she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I remember my cries, and it’s nothing like what a 2-year-old must feel. It’s terrifying. I relied on friends and the kindness of strangers. I can only imagine how much harder it would be for children to have to rely on [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents and prison guards for comfort.”
Despite President Trump’s recent policy shift, Guerrero remains skeptical about family reunification and immigration policy going forward. Fearmongering and wall-building won’t stop “mothers whose children are at risk of being shot or living in poverty from trying to cross over to America. Mothers will do anything to help their children survive,” she said. And how, she wonders, will the families already torn apart be reunited? What will the long-term consequences be? “As a 31-year-old woman, I am still feeling the effects of the separation,” she said.
These are issues Guerrero weaves into her very personal new book, “My Family Divided.” Aimed at children ages 8 to 12, the book is an adaptation of her 2016 memoir, “In the Country We Love.” Guerrero calls the new book, written with Erica Moroz, “the story of a very American girl.” As a memoir for readers of any age, it is inspirational and bracing.
The tone is frank and chummy, as Guerrero recalls the harrowing details of her family’s split-up and the emotional and financial challenges she faced building a life on her own. Guerrero is unsparing in her description of her struggles — with guilt, depression and self-harm; this is a children’s book that might best be read with adult guidance. Still, Guerrero feels strongly that children should not be shielded from her story or others like it. “I’m not one for lying to children. If this is something that is affecting some kids, other kids need to see that,” she said.
Guerrero answered questions about her experience and why she thinks children should hear her story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: For a long time, you were hesitant about telling your story. What changed?
A: I was just tired of living in shame. It’s not a nice feeling. You’re not nice to yourself or to others; you’re not living to your potential. I was also inspired by a lot of people who were coming out and sharing their stories about immigration and their status, and I wanted to be a part of that fight. I found community and solace in that.
Q: When was the last time you saw your parents — and what was that like?
A: I saw them last summer and plan to see them this summer. We have the same desire to be together in the same place, but it’s impossible to bring them back to the United States.
Q: Your new book is aimed at children ages 8 to 12. Why do you think children should know about this issue?
A: This is the book I needed as a child. As a kid, I never read anything close to my story. I had no reference point. I felt really alone.
My book isn’t about scaring kids. It’s about showing you a life that could be yours, and it’s about posing questions: How would you deal with something like this if it happened to you? Maybe I can motivate a kid to become an immigration lawyer or run for office or educate his or her parents.
Q: What have been some of the long-term effects of your family being apart?
A: You go through a lot to recover and live a normal life. You have to have a lot of therapy and have a great imagination to imagine your life better than what the cards have dealt you. Not everyone figures that out. Sometimes I hardly have the willpower. Even now I have to deal with anger and depression and how to love myself and consider myself of value.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your books?
A: I hope that people can see that family separation is inhumane and traumatic for all parties but most of all for the children involved. If we value children and family, there’s a great need for change, and we should try immigration reform — create a path for citizenship for people already here, update the visa system. It has never been illegal to be a refugee. Immigrants are working hard to give our families a better life. Isn’t that what the American Dream is?
Q: What message do you have for the children who have been detained?
A: To know that they are loved and that there are people who care about them and what happens to them, and that we are not going to stand for this. I want them to not lose hope and to know that they don’t deserve this.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.
By Diane Guerrero with Erica Moroz
Henry Holt. 256 pp. $18.99