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Immigration Lessons from ‘The Golden Girls’

with Courtney Pitman

Last week, the Obama administration announced that deportation proceedings would be suspended on a case-by-case basis for illegal immigrant youth that graduated high school and attended college or joined the military. An effort to focus enforcement resources on dangerous criminals, this policy will provide some relief to individuals that would be eligible to receive legal status via the proposed DREAM Act, which has been bouncing around Congress for the past decade.

Twenty-four years ago, “The Golden Girls” aired an episode in which Dorothy’s (Bea Arthur) student Mario (played by a pre-“Saved by the Bell” Mario Lopez in all of his adorably dimpled glory) wins a writing competition for his essay about what it means to be an American. The attention garnered from his accomplishment lands Mario a newspaper article along with a visit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who immediately put Mario into deportation proceedings because of his illegal status. Despite Dorothy’s testimony at his hearing, she is shocked that the court rules to deport such a smart, eager student.

The shocking part is how fresh this episode feels today (despite the references to Broderick Crawford and the overabundance of shoulder pads). Mario’s story is the same one that, at last, prompted action from the administration to keep talented youth in the United States. 

In the years that have passed since the episode’s airing, much has happened: the birth of one of the authors of this piece, the absorption of the INS into the larger Department of Homeland Security, and; the second act stardom of Betty White--the only one of the Girls still alive to see the new prosecutorial discretion announcement. Also, the Mario character would likely be about 40 now--the proposed DREAM Act stipulates that individuals must be under 30 to be eligible.

Golden Girl Dorothy Zbornak may have been ahead of her time in her indignation over immigration enforcement policies, but she would have had to work part time as a fortune teller to anticipate the trajectory of the “Governator.” You gotta love these ladies:

Dorothy Zbornak: [talking to Mario in a movie theatre] "You know, a lot of people come to America to start a new life. You're looking at one. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Came to America, started a new career, married a Kennedy. Right now, he's tearing off a man's arm and hitting him with it."

Plus ça change, c'est la meme chose.