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Crossing the Line for a Chance at Legal Status

August 04, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Some people will do anything for a green card.

Take Ariana De La Luz, who swallowed 38 grams of live tequila worms, or Diego Di Giovanni, who managed to trap a slippery pig drenched in butter, or Michael Couto, who jumped six times from one 18-wheeler traveling 60 mph to another in pursuit of six tiny green flags.

The contestants on "Gana la Verde" (Win the Green), an unscripted, Spanish-language show that airs nightly on KRCA-TV Channel 62 in Los Angeles, don't compete for a cash prize or even fame. Instead they jump through extraordinary hoops, eat disgusting "delicacies" and perform odd jobs, all in pursuit of the American dream.

The winner of this competition walks away with a set of immigration lawyers, who for one year work to expedite the residency process. No guarantee of "la verde," though.

"People say that our show is like 'Fear Factor,' but it's different because the climax of the show involves working," said production manager Adrian Vallarino, a Uruguayan native who moved to Los Angeles a year ago.

"That's the ultimate test, because we want to expose people to some of the realities of being in the workforce here. Many of our viewers are in precarious situations, and the company wanted to try to help them with their papers, to give something back to them."

The thought of becoming a legal resident propelled De La Luz, who begins her sociology and Chicano studies at UCLA next month, to dive underwater to retrieve 24 coins hidden in a treasure chest in less than two minutes. With a green card, she would be eligible for student financial aid.

But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials warn that contestants should not get their hopes up.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on the premise of a television show except to say that they are holding out false hope to people," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the agency. "You're getting people to submit to unpleasant things, holding out hope that you'll be able to change their legal status in this country, when some people are just not able to adjust their status because this is all dependent on laws. It sounds very much like exploitation."

KRCA, however, maintains that its show is not driven by the frivolous trappings of the unscripted genre, which offers plastic surgery, instant marriages or an opportunity to swap families. The station, owned by Houston-based independent Liberman Broadcasting, also offers Spanish-language local newscasts, talk shows and dating programs in its four markets: Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Dallas.

Since "Gana la Verde" premiered here July 1, it has consistently reached an average of 1 million Latino households. Last week, the show was No. 2 among 18- to 49-year-old Latino viewers, the station's target audience, in its 7 p.m. time slot. Thus far, the show has apparently gone unnoticed by immigration advocates or opponents, and the producers say they've received no complaints.

"Gana la Verde" recruits contestants like most reality shows do -- through TV and radio ads and the Internet. There is already a waiting list, despite the fact that each week 30 contestants end up on the air.

Producers adhere to a strict format: Six contestants compete in the first round, which involves a difficult and daredevilish physical task. Four semifinalists break bread together over gourmet treats, such as live crabs, scorpions and worms.

The remaining two go head-to-head performing a job, such as towing a car or washing the outside of a 10-story building. The winner is picked up by a limo at the end of the show, presumably to be taken to meet with an immigration lawyer.

"If it's true what they say, that they are helping people get their papers in order, I think that's great," said 25-year-old Luis Sanchez of Los Angeles, who watches the show every night. "I don't think the show can hurt anyone. There are thousands of illegal immigrants, and everybody knows it. I don't think the immigration service is going to go after anyone because they are on the show. There are things we do out of necessity, not because we want to. Eating worms for your papers is one of those things."

If someone is aware of the show's growing popularity, it's host George X, who has been recognized at restaurants and on location by fans of the show. A native of Mexico who began his career covering extreme sports for Televisa, George X also has covered the Olympics, the Super Bowl and will host the X Games for ESPN Deportes this weekend in Los Angeles.

"I love the outdoors, and I'm pretty fearless when it comes to trying new things," George X said. "I've tried everything from bungee jumping to sky diving, but I have to say the one thing that really got me was the episode where the contestants ate the live scorpions. Wow! I'm not sure I could do that one."

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