The show features immigrants who compete in contests that have included gulping down live tequila worms, fending off vicious attack dogs and jumping between two speeding 18-wheeler trucks.
The groups say Liberman Broadcasting's "Gana la Verde" or "Win the Green," shown on Spanish-language stations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Dallas, gives a false impression of how the immigration process works and ridicules those seeking legal status in the United States. They said it also makes contestants who are illegal immigrants potential targets for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"It gives the erroneous message that through tricks one can get a green card, and it puts people in danger of being deported," said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center.
The groups also claimed the show does the "homework" for immigration authorities by providing details about immigrants who may be here illegally.
Representatives of the immigrant advocacy groups said they want to meet with Liberman Broadcasting officials to discuss more realistic portrayals of the immigration system. If the production company doesn't agree to meet with them or pull the show, they will consider a boycott of the program's advertisers, as well as legal action for alleged false advertising and unlawful legal advice, said Victor Nieblas, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Lenard Liberman, co-owner of the Burbank-based company, said he would be happy to meet with the groups but is not planning to pull the show.
"We're just trying to help people out here. I don't know what all the controversy's about," he said. "If we gave away breast implants or plastic surgery, no one could care. But try to help Maria go from a nanny to a nurse, and everyone raises an outcry."
Winners earn a year's worth of legal guidance toward a green card for legal residency. The show doesn't actually guarantee winners a U.S. residency card, but the introduction describes the six contestants battling for their final goal of the green card amid ominous images of barbed wire along the border and U.S. patrol helicopters.
Liberman said the contestants are all adults, and that with recent immigration raids, they face the risk of deportation by going to the supermarket.
The show, which has aired more than 20 episodes, is ranked No. 2 among 18- to 49-year-old Hispanic viewers, Liberman said.
"There are already two people who are on their way to getting green cards. There's one person who's four to six months away. We don't have one participant complaint," he said. "If this makes money, it's only going to become more popular."
Those against the program acknowledged that their efforts may simply boost the ratings, as did the controversy surrounding films such as "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit 9-11."
"We have to trust the community not to support this," Sanbrano said.