Saturday, August 14, 2004

WEEKEND UPDATE

A Pop Life reader (thanks Piotr) sent this link in, a follow-up to the story I posted earlier in the week about a game show that shows undocumented immigrants competing in Fear Factor-esque stunts in order to gain legal help to acquiring a green card.

From the LA Times, 8/13

    Stunts for green card aid criticized

    By Maria Elena Fernandez, Times Staff Writer

    A Spanish-language reality series on Los Angeles station KRCA-TV, Channel 62, is kicking up harsh criticism from legal advocates and at least three members of Congress, who say it exploits and possibly endangers immigrants. But station managers vowed Thursday that the show will go on.

    The series, "Gana la Verde" (Win the Green), dangles the promise of immigration assistance for contestants who agree to perform on-camera stunts such as lying in a sealed plastic coffin with 500 rats or eating live beetles. The show, which is produced by Liberman Broadcasting, a Houston-based independent company, premiered on July 1 and borrows heavily from the format of NBC's unscripted hit "Fear Factor." In the case of "Gana la Verde," the winner walks away with one year's worth of paid assistance from experienced immigration lawyers who work to expedite the winner's residency process. The series is broadcast daily in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Dallas.

    A front-page story about the show in The Times on Aug. 4 drew the attention of immigration advocates, some of whom worry that it could jeopardize participants. Some contestants are undocumented immigrants who, advocates claim, are in danger of being detained or deported after being exposed on television. Others have visas and are in the process of becoming residents. Some contestants compete to win legal aid to help loved ones.

    Representatives from six immigration legal and advocacy organizations held a news conference Thursday to demand that KRCA pull the show off the air. The groups were the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., California La Raza Lawyers Assn., Central American Resource Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Latina Lawyers Bar Assn. and the Mexican American Bar Assn.

    "Obviously, the concern here is the immigrant community and more specifically the contestants," said Victor Niebles, a member of the board of governors of AILA and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University. "The community-based organizations and lawyer bar associations which have contacted us are outraged at the false promises given on the show daily. With the immigration climate that we live under right now, these contestants face great danger. More importantly, we are concerned about what these attorneys are actually promising these individuals in regard to green cards and legalization."

    But Lenard Liberman, the vice president and general manager of KRCA and the mastermind behind "Gana la Verde," dismissed such complaints. He said he was motivated to create a reality show that would grant participants a prize they desperately needed but could not afford. All contestants sign a 20-page release that explains there is no guarantee of a green card. On Thursday, Liberman said he would not take the show off the air but was willing to listen to constructive criticism about it.

    "We are regulated by the FCC, and if they have a problem, they should contact us," Liberman said. "At the end of the day, we have had no viewer complaints and no complaints from anyone who has participated in the show."

    Referring to popular plastic-surgery series such as "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan," Liberman added: "It's very troubling to me that I can do a show that gives Maria breast implants and nobody complains, but when I give Maria a chance to go from being a nanny to a nurse, everybody finds that objectionable. Nobody is under the delusion that we are giving away green cards here."

    Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) begged to differ. Although he said that he had never watched the show, he was nonetheless concerned that it deceived or exploited immigrants, especially undocumented people.

    "The real name of the show should be 'Pierde la Oportunitad' (Lose the Opportunity) because that's exactly what can happen to people who are here illegally," Becerra said. "[By appearing on the show] you are doing everything to identify yourself for those who can apprehend you and deport you before you can even complete an application process for a green card."

    The show has also made at least one advertiser squeamish. Weber-Stephen Products, an Illinois-based barbecue company, on Thursday pulled its ads for gas grills from the show.

    "We don't want to have anything to do with a program commenting on the frivolousness of luring someone into believing they're getting a green card in turn for doing horrific things," said Nancy Misch, who runs the company's legal department. Becerra, along with the six groups protesting the series, wants a meeting with Liberman to discuss the program's contents as well as the specific promises made to participants during the application process. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) have also expressed concerns about the program.

    "Gana la Verde" isn't suffering from a shortage of interest in the community. The program has a long waiting list of potential contestants.

    "I do believe it's irresponsible to raise false hopes and to do it in a deceptive way," Becerra said. "On 'Fear Factor' and those other programs, people have a better sense of the good or bad consequences of participation. The subsequent consequences of being deported are much greater than what you might do with your new breasts or $1 million."

    Liberman said that KRCA does not force people to use their real names on the show. He also criticized lawyers for helping create the need for such a show.

    "There's a gigantic need among Mexican immigrants especially to have access to legal services," Liberman said. "We're going to have 110 winners every year who will have legal assistance for free. There's a huge amount of abuse in the system among immigration lawyers. I hope they would look inwardly and make getting legal assistance more affordable."