In reality TV shows, from "Fear Factor" to "Survivor," contestants try to "win the green" as in cold, hard cash. But in a new cable program, the "green" is actually a green card. Immigrants square off for a chance to win permanent residency in the U.S.
It was Lenard Liberman's idea to create "Gana la Verde" or "Win the Green." The executive vice president of Liberman Broadcasting explains to The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen how his show works.
"Basically, six people appear every day on the show," Liberman explains. "The show is on the air five days a week, Monday through Friday. We hope to produce at least 110 shows a year, and those six people go through a series of physical challenges culminating in a job challenge and here is one final winner who, at the end of the program, wins one year's worth of legal assistance in their immigration case before the INS."
The aim is not only to provide entertainment, but to help the community, Lieberman notes. But Victor Nieblas disagrees. His organization, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has called for "Gana la Verde" to be pulled off the air for several reasons.
"One, we believe it preys on people's fears. It targets the people who are desperate in our society," Nieblas says. "Two, it gives false promises and false hopes. No one can guarantee a green card, not even Mr. Lieberman, and number three, it makes these contestants targets for the Department of Homeland Security to detain them and support them and separate them from their families."
Liberman, however, says an extensive pre-screening process ensures that the contestants are not illegal in the U.S.
He says, "Every person on the show meets with four different people on our program and, in the course of that interview process and prescreening process, they have a waiver that they review and read in Spanish. It's 20 pages or so. In there, they represent they're 18 years or older. They represent that they're legal residents of the United States. So from our perspective and from the show's perspective, the participants are legally in the United States."
He also notes one of the perks of his reality show is that people who participate can transfer the prize to a friend or family member who is in need of legal service.
Liberman points out the only thing that differentiates his show from say "Fear Factor" or "Survivor" is just the prize.
"Nobody is preying on people's fears," he says. "They're over 18 years old; you can decide to enlist in the military and fight a war in Iraq; decide to raise a family; and you can decide to create a career for yourself, but for some reason, our critics don't think they're capable of appearing on a reality show. No one is misleading anybody."
The problem, Nieblas says, is that it is hard to guarantee contestants will get the desirable green card.
"Immigration law is very complex, very difficult, and for someone to say, 'I'm going to promise you legal benefit,' I think there is a big problem with that," Nieblas says. "First of all, the immigration service does not act within one year. It's almost literally impossible. That's why the former INS was dismantled, because of the backlog, and to promise someone and say. 'We're going to get you a green card within the year' is, again, false promise, false hope."
Asked if anyone has obtained a green card as a result of appearing on his show, Liberman says, "One of our contenders qualified for a green card two years ago but couldn't afford an attorney or legal services. Through our show, he's well on his way through the process and should be receiving a green card.
"Another gentleman took the bar in Italy and appeared on our show. He will get legal permanent residence in the United States, and one was a professional in Mexico, an attorney, came to the United States on her husband's visa. The majority of our winners qualify for improved legal status in the United States within the INS system, so nobody is breaking the system or making false promises."
So, in essence, the show does not promise a Green Card, but just legal help to get one. But if that is so, Nieblas says, "There are many community-based organizations that we work with that provide the free legal service."
That's a legal service Lieberman says does not exist. "The free legal services that Mr. Nieblas talks about, I think they're in the same streets of gingerbread houses and candy cane trees. They don't exist and we're giving help to them," Liberman says.
"Gana la Verde" is currently getting high ratings in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, and Dallas.