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Documented cIRCA ‘86: looking to the past to impact future immigration reform

Documented cIRCA ‘86: looking to the past to impact future immigration reform

Kayhan Irani’s parents, Noshir and Teshtar. All photos courtesy of Kayhan Irani and Julian Pimiento.


 By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.

July 18, 2016


Julian Pimiento was a huge NY Jets fan as kid growing up in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in the 1970’s. The son of then undocumented immigrants from Colombia, Pimiento and his friend would frequently toss a football around in the street, pretending they were the players they idolized.

One day, he overthrew the ball and broke his friend’s father’s windshield. He panicked and ran home — only to find the father pounding on the door to his apartment moments later and threatening to call immigration.

“I actually felt like I had put the family in danger,” Pimiento told ivoh over the phone.

Julian Pimiento

Julian Pimiento

Nothing happened that day, but for Pimiento, his parent’s undocumented status continually caused an underlying anxiety. There was always the chance his parents wouldn’t come home from the factories where they worked. Twice his mom’s clothing factory got raided. And twice, she was saved from deportation because it turned out the immigration lawyer his family was working with was a con man, and in exchange for testifying against him, she could stay.

It was from this deal that a sympathetic INS agent told her to save all her paperwork for an upcoming amnesty bill. In 1986, President Reagan signed into effect the largest legalization program in U.S. history to date. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) gave green cards to roughly 2.7 million immigrants who, like Pimiento’s family, arrived undocumented but nevertheless integrated and made lives for themselves in the United States.

Thirty years later, Emmy award-winning writer and producer Kayhan Irani wants to show how they’ve made America better with her multimedia storytelling project launched this past spring, Documented cIRCA ‘86: Immigration Reform Turns Thirty.”

“People who were “illegal” were under this dark cloud, this dark word. And look what they’ve been able to do in 30 years. Look at their contributions, material and cultural, and what knowledge they’ve been able to add by being here,” said Irani. “They have a very important story to tell and a very important piece of American history to add.”  

Together with her team, Tammy Arnstein and Robert Winn, Irani is currently collecting oral histories from IRCA recipients. The idea is to create short videos and animated pieces to share on social media as well as build a digital archive of the full stories.

While there have been varying critiques of the 1986 law over the years, Irani’s goal is to highlight the resilience and triumphs of those impacted.

Kayhan Irani

Kayhan Irani

“Thirty years ago, before they were legalized, they were doing anything they could to try and make a living and keep their head down. Now they’re doctors, government officials, teachers, mothers, grandmothers,” said Irani.  “It’s just these wonderful stories of success. And success in every way, not just notoriety. Success in terms of building a life, building connections, building community.”

Pimiento, for example, is now a union organizer, father, filmmaker, writer, actor, and Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator in New York City.  He often draws from his past experiences to empower disenfranchised communities in telling their stories, and ultimately, fight back against injustice.  

“What do I do with these second chances that were given to my family?” said Pimiento.  “I realized my whole life I’ve been a bridge between one space and another. I feel very strongly that part of my role is to try and help, and be a resource for my Latino immigrant community.”



Left: Julian and his mother, Graciela Pimiento Santos. Right: Irani and her brother in 1985 at a joint initiation ceremony, called Navjote, for their Zoroastrianism faith.


“Documented cIRCA ‘86” is especially timely as the immigration debate heats up again with the recent United States vs. Texas Supreme Court split ruling. (The case challenged Obama’s 2014 executive action that would’ve granted nearly 5 million undocumented parents and children an extension to stay and work legally, respectively known as DAPA and DACA.) Coupled with the widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric this election season, Irani sees the need for the project more than ever.

“It’s really important now because the level of misinformation and hate speech that’s been allowed to permeate our cultural consciousness is overwhelming. And we need these narratives to really speak truth to the falsehood that’s being spread,” said Irani. “We need to show America the proof of reform, which is, that we do better when we welcome.”

It’s territory Irani is intimately familiar with. When she was just three years old, her parents left the Parsi community in India for Queens, New York.  As a child, her parents would send her and her brother to classes every first Sunday of the month, at their temple, to learn about the history of their people, Zoroastrian Iranian refugees to India, and the history of the Persian empire.

“That knowledge really armed me and helped me form the backbone I needed to stand up and claim a place in America and take a seat at the table and say our stories matter. Our histories matter. Our contributions to world civilization matter,” said Irani. “And you’re going to know about it.”

As an adult, it’s a theme she finds herself continually revisiting.  Irani, like Pimiento, is also a practitioner in Theatre of the Oppressed. Her one woman theatre show in 2004, “We’ve Come Undone,” explores the experiences of immigrant women post 9/11. “We Are New York,” a comedic television drama for which she won an Emmy in 2010, follows the lives of immigrants making their way in NYC.

Most recently, Irani co-founded the Muslim Women’s Story Lab and was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art & Storytelling. In all her projects, she hopes to disrupt stereotypes and bring marginalized voices to the center.


Top row (L-R): Professor Peter Kwong, IRCA recipient and graphic artist Stedroy Cleghorne, IRCA recipient and NYC Commission on Gender Equity director Azadeh Khalil, and DACA recipient and community organizer Mouhamed Kaba. Bottom row (L-R): Kayhan Irani and her Documented cIRCA '86 co-producer, Tammy Arnstein.

Top row (L-R): Professor Peter Kwong, IRCA recipient and graphic artist Stedroy Cleghorne, IRCA recipient and NYC Commission on Gender Equity director Azadeh Khalil, and DACA recipient and community organizer Mouhamed Kaba. Bottom row (L-R): Kayhan Irani and her “Documented cIRCA ’86” co-producer, Tammy Arnstein.


For “Documented cIRCA ‘86,” Irani and her team have partnered so far with a number of community-based organizations and national networks working on immigrant rights to help collect histories. They’ve also held a panel co-sponsored by the NYC Mayor’s Office to celebrate undocumented heritage this past April. Hosting more live events, incorporating stories into organizational toolkits, and developing a speaker’s bureau — these are all but a few of Irani’s dreams.

Her ultimate goal, of course, is to affect policy by inspiring a hopefulness about opening America’s borders.

“I want people to feel like immigration reform is a good thing and not this fraught, confusing, scarcity, and fear-based division that they have to make,” said Irani. “It brings so much richness and benefit to our lives.”


Were you or someone you know impacted by IRCA and want to share your story? Or would like to support the project another way? Please get in touch with Kayhan Irani:


Related: A conversation with Rupa Shenoy, creator of the ‘Otherhood’ podcast | The Mash-Up Americans explores intersection of race, culture & identity from the frontline of multicultural America | Al Jazeera America’s ‘Borderland’ documentary puts Americans in immigrants’ shoes | ONWARD storytelling project aims to advance the dialogue on immigration