Television Review : Latino Families Tell of Life 'In the Shadow . . .'

Although it is not deliberately designed to be so, "In the Shadow of the Law" could be seen as a potent argument for a more liberal U.S. immigration policy (tonight at 11 on Channel 28).

The hourlong documentary focuses on four Latino families from the San Diego area who have been living in the United States illegally. It is produced without any overt editorializing by Paul Espinosa of PBS station KPBS in San Diego. (It ran earlier this month on that station.)

Espinosa simply lets illegals like Victor Gamez and their families tell in their own words what it's like to live for years in the shadows of society in perpetual fear that they might be picked up and deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

With INS roadblocks and with police boarding buses and asking Latinos for their papers, daily life for illegals is full of terrors hardly befitting a democracy. A family outing to the beach for Gamez, a ranch supervisor in Escondido, led to his whole family's arrest and deportment. Gamez and his five children sneaked back and are now happily on their way to becoming U.S. citizens, but it wasn't easy or cheap and they needed the intervention of Sen. Pete Wilson.

Illegal immigrants like Benita Vasquez, a maid for a family in La Jolla for 15 years, are especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of. She and her husband tell the sad story of how they were duped out of $5,000 worth of their savings by a notary they thought was an immigration lawyer.

Producer Espinosa, who co-wrote the program with Leo Chavez, also shows how the new immigration law that provides amnesty for millions of long-term illegals can still be a bureaucratic nightmare of uncertainty. The new law offers little hope of legalization to someone like Amalia, a single mother of a handicapped child who lacks the documentation to prove that she's been in America since 1979. Amalia has decided to remain in the shadows rather than risk being deported.

"In the Shadow of the Law" evokes a great deal of sympathy for illegals in general and for its four families in particular. After seeing the risks that these proud, hard-working people have taken to come to America, and the sacrifices they've made to stay here, many viewers might conclude that the hardship that illegal immigrants and their children undergo is unfair and unnecessary.

Preceding "In the Shadow of the Law" at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 28 is a spare, moderately interesting half-hour drama about a young Guatemalan woman who takes a job as a housekeeper for a middle-class Anglo family. Titled "The New Maid," it's part of the Latino series "Vistas" (also at 8:30 p.m. on Channel 15).

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