By Nico Santos
May 16, 2019 at 09:00 PM EDT
Tyler Golden/NBC
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Spoiler alert: This post contains plot from the season 4 finale of Superstore.

In Superstore‘s season 4 finale, ICE showed up at Cloud 9, and despite the staff’s best efforts, Mateo was discovered. Star Nico Santos writes about the personal impact of the episode below.

The ICE Agents bore down on me from every angle. I was trapped, and I was truly terrified.

Yes, I knew there were cameras, that we were on a set and playing make-believe. But in that moment, the fear felt very real to me.

What shook me to my core was knowing that I could’ve very well been Mateo. Had a vacation to Disneyland when I was a young boy turned out differently, I would not have been an actor playing an undocumented person being taken by ICE, but an actual undocumented retail worker being ripped away from his family by a workplace raid.

I was born in the Philippines, just like my character Mateo. In the early ‘80s, my family vacationed to the United States. I knew I was going to meet Mickey and ride Space Mountain, but what I didn’t know was that my parents intended for us to stay permanently. They wanted more for us. They wanted us to dream big and to have every opportunity to achieve those dreams.

We learned in the episode “Olympics” that Mateo was undocumented. Brought to America as a child by his family who, presumably, overstayed their tourist visas, Mateo found his way through school and jobs with a counterfeit green card given to him by his grandmother. It never occurred to him that he wasn’t in the country legally.

This could’ve very well been my story. We could’ve overstayed our visas. I would’ve become an undocumented child who grew into an undocumented adult.

But that’s not what happened. My family decided to return the Philippines. My brother and I eventually made our way back and I gained my American citizenship in my mid-twenties.

I share this with you to illustrate that the line between being a documented immigrant and an undocumented immigrant is very fine. But the consequences for a person’s life are immense.

My brother joined the Army. He served multiple tours in Iraq and now lives in Texas with his family.

And, as my parents wished, I achieved my big dreams. I’m not a doctor, but I think they’re proud of how everything worked out.

My brother would be no less courageous, and I no less ambitious had we been undocumented. But our opportunities to contribute our greatest strengths to this country would’ve been severely diminished.

Before I booked Superstore — my “big break” as they say — I worked in restaurants, a common target of ICE’s recent surge in workplace raids. Over the past several months, hundreds of workplaces have been raided and thousands of breadwinners have been torn away from their families. These are hard-working people who contribute to our society in so many important ways.

For three seasons now, Superstore has dealt with the uncertainty of Mateo’s undocumented status, but tonight’s episode, in which Cloud 9 is raided by ICE, is the first time where we felt the danger in a visceral way.

For me, riding in the back of the Homeland Security van, hands bound by plastic ties, waving goodbye to the people who’ve become my family, I was overcome with sorrow and panic over the consequences of being deported.

Even though the Philippines is evolving in its attitude toward LGBTQ people, I would not be able to get married there. For my LGBTQ siblings being returned to Central American, South American, or Middle Eastern countries, the consequences would be far more dire. Camila Córdova, a 31-year-old trans woman who was denied her application for asylum, was killed for being trans within months of being deported to El Salvador.

It feels like every day I read a new headline in the war against undocumented immigrants: Workplace raids tear families apart. HUD proposes expelling any families with an undocumented person from public housing, which the New York Times estimates would displace 55,000 children. I see kids in cages. I see the absence of humanity for people seeking a better life, the chance to achieve their dreams.

We all need to call upon our lawmakers to create a path to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding undocumented people and their families.

But more immediately, we must return compassion to the conversation about immigration. We must work to change in our hearts and minds what it looks like to be undocumented. It is the high schooler dreaming of college who isn’t aware of his status. It is the single mother working grueling hours in a warehouse just to provide for her children. It is the family that sits next to you in church. It is your neighbor. It is Mateo. And it could’ve been me.

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