September 10, 2004

Popular Latino ‘Reality Show’ Offers Chance for Citizenship

By Selene Rivera

In their desperation to become legal residents, many people make the impossible look easy. Such is the case of the participants in the television show/contest “Gana la Verde” (“Win the Green”), who accomplish inconceivable goals — eat live insects or jump from moving vehicles — in order to obtain their “green” permanent residency card. Many human rights groups see the contests in this show as humiliating, leading them to ask for the show’s cancellation, but the creators of the “reality show” think differently.

Since it began to air on July 1, the television show — which airs on KRCA Channel 62 — has had great success among the Latino audience. While some think the show is lending a “helping hand,” for others it is nothing more than a degrading experience. But regardless of the diverse opinions, the show is still seen in thousands of homes throughout Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas and Houston.

The show, which is based on the same concept as “Fear Factor,” requires its contestants to participate in various gut-wrenching and seemingly dangerous challenges. On the show participants must eat cockroaches, worms and animal body parts of all types; also, they are asked to complete risky tasks, like cleaning the windows of a high-rise building or jumping from vehicles. Although the winners do not obtain a monetary prize, they are rewarded with a full year of legal counseling to accelerate their pending immigration cases.

“This is like any other contest. We do not force anyone to do anything they do not want to, and we don’t humiliate the participants. The people call us, and they come in voluntarily. In other contests, winners receive money or they are told, ‘you are ugly,’ and they receive a surgery. We offer our winners legal counseling from the best attorneys anyone can find,” said the show’s producer and director, Adrian Vallarino.

However, not everyone thinks the same way. A letter that was sent to the show from the Southern California Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Mexican American Bar Association and several activists expresses their belief that the show exploits the immigrants and gives them an incentive to enter the country illegally.

For his part, the chairman of the Southern California Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Raul Goinet has repeatedly told the media that “Gana la Verde” only gives people false hope. “The program exploits people that are in a desperate situation, giving them untrue expectations.”

But, in response to the accusations in that letter, the creator of the show and the vice president of the production company, Lenard Liberman, insists that they have not promised the permanent residency card to anyone, but they have promised free legal counseling to accelerate the application process for the participants.

Vallarino maintains that the show’s contestants do not run any risk by revealing their identity to the public, and that they are not exploited, since all of the participants have a legal permit to be in the United States and the show operates under the law.

“The people that participate on the show are not illegal aliens. For the most part, they are people with student visas that are about to expire and are looking for legal counseling.

Other people have a workers’ permit, but would like to know if they are eligible to apply for permanent residency. Many people come to participate to help their families become legalized, because the prize can be transferred. Immigration is not going to come and detain anybody. We have not received any complaints from participants or the office of immigration,” said Vallarino.

The spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, Lory Haley, commented, “That is not our show. Everyone is free to do as they wish. Only they know what they’re doing,” referring to Liberman’s production company. But Haley added that creating false expectations could lead the public to believe that the benefits of legal immigration can be obtained by anyone, emphasizing that the show could be undermining the legal path chosen by thousands of immigrants.

Even though “Gana la Verde” is very controversial, some people say that the show’s participants should have the last word. One contestant, Karen Carias, 25, said with tears in her eyes, “If I win, I want to try to go see my daughter in Guatemala,” but even after eating 93 grams of live crabs, she lost to her opponents who were able to eat more of this crustacean. After her defeat, Carias said, “I am sad that I lost; I haven’t seen my daughter in three years. I know I ate as much as I could, but my efforts were in vain. Oh well,” concluded the young mother.

Maria Correas, 33, who ate more than 140 grams of crab to qualify for the last challenge, said, “I don’t consider the show a humiliation; I see it as an opportunity. I haven’t seen my children in eight years.” And, looking into the eyes of her final opponent’s wife, Correas added, “May God’s will be done.”

Reprinted from Eastern Group Publications, Sep 05, 2004.

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