Johan Miranda spent five years of his life waking up at 5 in the morning to work at a gas station in San Francisco. He’d watched as his friends from high school had all moved forward in their lives — getting driver’s licenses, jobs and college degrees — while he stayed in exactly the same place. When they pestered him with questions about why he was still working at a gas station, he made up excuses: He was taking time off, he wasn’t ready for college, he was just weighing his options. “I would lose track of the lies that I would have to tell them,” he says today.
He couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth: That he was an undocumented immigrant, that he couldn’t get a driver’s license and didn't have a Social Security number, and that the gas station was the only place that had agreed to pay him under the table for his work. “That was the lowest point in my life, because I really thought, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “I really thought, like, do I just start selling drugs? There’s no fucking future for me. There’s zero, nothing I can do.”
Everything changed on June 15, 2012, when he read the headlines on a stack of newspapers: President Barack Obama had announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, otherwise known as DACA, an executive order that allowed undocumented immigrants who came to America as children to apply for work authorization and legal protection against deportation. Having immigrated from Peru when he was 3 years old and lived continuously in the United States ever since, Miranda was a prime candidate for the program. He applied immediately and soon became an official “Dreamer,” the feel-good moniker given to recipients of DACA.
Miranda now fears his days living in the United States are numbered, with Donald Trump expected to repeal DACA. But the 27-year-old, who has spent the last four years performing as a stand-up comic in L.A. while pursuing his dream of becoming a TV writer, isn’t planning on going anywhere quietly. In the more than two months since the election, he has made it his mission to raise awareness about his undocumented status and the looming threat of deportation that he and more than 700,000 other DACA recipients now face. “Hiding in the shadows is not an option anymore, whether you like it or not,” he says. “That’s what I would advise every DACA recipient who is going to lose their DACA: Be visible, announce yourself, share your story, get as much help as you can.”
In a public Facebook group called “Bad Hombres,” Miranda writes frequently about his emotional state, his political hopes and the progress of his continued meetings with immigration lawyers, most of whom have told him that there’s nothing they can do to help his situation except wait and see what Trump will do. In the meantime, Miranda is taking matters into his own hands. Anticipating that his driver’s license and work permit soon will be revoked and that he’ll no longer be able to earn an income driving for the likes of Lyft and Postmates as a result, he’s pitching himself as a writer for hire, offering to punch up friends’ scripts, write jokes for their roast battles or TV appearances, and to help finish their packets, the writing samples comedians are often asked to submit when applying for TV gigs.
He’s also launching a podcast — also dubbed Bad Hombres — in which he plans to track down and interview fellow Dreamers, of whom he says he’s met very few while embedded in the L.A. comedy scene. He imagines he’ll record their conversations not just about immigration but also about everything from relationships and dating to art and comedy. The goal, he says, is to show that undocumented people are “just regular people,” as opposed to the extreme archetypes often portrayed on television. “Whether it’s on CNN or whatever, I understand why it exists, but they show the Dreamers who are killing it and fucking valedictorian of Harvard and whatever,” he says. “We’re either like rapists crossing the border or fucking superheroes, and that’s not real to the undocumented people that I knew growing up.”
Miranda wasn’t always this vocal about his undocumented status. Before receiving protection from DACA, he says, he lived in fear of getting deported. One of the scariest moments of his life was being pulled over by the police while walking home from work at the gas station one day. Years before that, his older brother — who has since received citizenship through marriage — got caught taking his parents’ car joy-riding without a driver’s license, and it was the first time Miranda realized, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to kind of lay low.” But over the last couple of years, he says, “I forgot what it was like to worry, to have that constant anxiety.”
Under a Trump administration, Miranda's anxiety and paranoia have returned, often in the form of nightmares. He spent the week after the election bedridden, going through what he describes as “the five stages of grief” while figuring out a plan of action. Unlike some of his friends and relatives, he hadn’t thought twice about handing over his personal information while applying to DACA, which can involve turning in everything from school report cards to shopping receipts as proof of residence. “I had undocumented friends that would tell me, ‘Are you sure you’re going to do that?’ And I was like, ‘No bro, fucking trust them. It’s going to be all right,’” Miranda says. “Even if a Republican gets elected [as the next president], they’re not going to repeal it, it’s fine,” he remembers assuring his friends and family at the time.
He bursts into laughter at the thought of it now.
“When I started doing comedy, I started out in 2010, and I would just do jokes and I would never mention being undocumented because I was like, ‘What if someone doesn’t like me and just fucking calls Immigration?’” he says. “But then once I got DACA, that’s when I was like, ‘All right, well, I can say whatever I want now.’”
The L.A. comedy scene has rallied behind his cause, sharing articles in his Facebook group, donating money to his Patreon account and hosting several comedy fundraisers for him. During a benefit show on Thursday night for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Miranda shared a bill with former The Daily Show With Jon Stewart correspondent Al Madrigal, Pete Holmes from the HBO series Crashing and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom.
But even with the uncertainty surrounding his future in the United States, his big break could be yet to come. He’s currently developing a TV show about his life with writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who, along with Mike Judge, co-created the HBO series Silicon Valley. He says he hopes the show will offer a more accurate, nuanced TV portrayal of what it’s really like to be undocumented in America — not as an overachiever, not as a criminal, but somewhere in between. “I don’t want to portray myself as a role model,” he says. “When I'm onstage as a comedian, I'm like, 'Sometimes I'm a scumbag, but I'm just doing my best.'”
Miranda performs Sun., Jan. 22, at 8 p.m. as part of Riot Fest L.A.'s “Comics to Watch.”