Crossing the Line for a Chance at Legal Status

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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.”

When it came to the tequila worms, De La Luz was not sure she could pull it off either. The worst part, the 21-year-old Puebla, Mexico, native said, was the intense smell. It also didn’t help that the worms slithered inside tacos, one of the show’s Mexican touches. Contestants must choose from tacos, nachos, burritos and tostadas to go with their slimy creatures.

“They stink!” she said. “It was this horrible smell, and they were still alive. I put a handful of worms in my mouth and one of them was hanging from my lips. Oh, my God, I felt like throwing up.

“My mom thought I was crazy for doing this. She had seen some of the shows, and there were some that people ate things that were worse than worms. My mom told me to trust in God and he will help me.”

Whether it proved to be her prayers or perseverance, De La Luz stunned her mother by beating five other participants, including three men.

A fan of NBC’s “Fear Factor,” De La Luz heard a radio commercial for “Gana la Verde” and figured it was her destiny to apply. Because De La Luz and her family cannot afford to hire a lawyer, they have not attempted to become legal residents, which prevents her from qualifying for financial aid, loans or grants at UCLA. Although most undocumented immigrants try not to call attention to themselves out of fear of being deported, De La Luz, who has a job and pays taxes, said she had to take the chance.


“Getting my green card will open a lot of opportunities for me that I wish I had,” said De La Luz, who crossed the Mexican border with her mother and brother illegally when she was 8 years old. “There are times when you risk whatever you need to risk. You have to risk something to get something.”

Richard Sherman, the Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer whose firm represents Liberman Broadcasting and was hired to retain immigration lawyers for the show’s winners, said the risks are outlined for all contestants.

“If you’re illegal, it probably would be better not to be on anybody’s radar screen,” Sherman said. “It’s possible that there is some risk of that. But I don’t think it’s going to catch the attention of Homeland Security. They have other things to do now.”

Many of the show’s participants have student or work visas or are already in the process of becoming residents. Others compete for an opportunity to hire lawyers to help loved ones.

“So far, I’m very happy with the lawyers,” said Italian-born Di Giovanni, a 29-year-old actor here on a student visa and the show’s first winner. “I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll get from them. I want to have a work visa. This is a big help to me. If I had to pay for this myself, I’d have to manage my limited finances very differently.”

Judy London, an immigration lawyer and advocate, agrees that targeting undocumented individuals is not a high priority for the federal government these days and, so far, none of the contestants of “Gana la Verde” has suffered negative consequences. But so far no one has gotten a green card, either. Even though pursuing individual immigrants is not a priority for the federal government, “we remind people they are potentially subject to arrest. In some instances, we are obliged to act,” the immigration department’s Kice said.


If Liberman Broadcasting wants to help its viewers, London suggests, it could begin by offering access to legal services to more of them.

“Legal help should not just go out to the winners of reality shows,” said London, directing attorney of the immigrants rights project at Los Angeles-based Public Counsel. “Why not expand it and find some pro bono representation for everyone involved? There are agencies who provide free legal advice. We encourage people who are out of status to tell their stories because the leaders of this country need to know how many talented people are here and, through no fault of their own, are not able to achieve status, like the plight of high school students who we are in the process of trying to legalize so they can pursue higher education.”

Carl Shusterman, a former INS prosecutor who is now an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, said it’s “unconscionable” for the show to use the real names of undocumented contestants because the information can be used against them, even if immigration officials are not inclined to watch the show.

“It’s a bad idea, bad, bad idea to go on a show like this and tell the world about it,” Shusterman said. “There’s no way Channel 62 could guarantee that the immigration service isn’t going to go after some of these people. What control do they have? And to put it mildly, eating live scorpions might not be a good idea in my view either, but who am I to judge?”