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SINCE slipping illegally into California from her native Mexico as a child 13 years ago, Ariana de la Luz has dreamt of winning permanent residency in the United States, but has been unable to afford it.

The prospect of paying thousands of dollars to a lawyer was out of the question, and she feared deportation if she tried and failed to navigate the legal maze on her own.

So when challenged to swallow 38 grams of live tequila worms in exchange for a shot at getting a Green Card, the all-important government document granting official permission to live and work in the US, Ms De la Luz jumped at the chance.

"They stank - there was this horrible smell," the 21-year-old said. "I put a handful of worms in my mouth and one of them was hanging from my lips. I felt like throwing up."

It would not have been a problem if she had thrown up, because to the makers of Gana La Verde, one of the most controversial new game-shows to hit America’s television screens, the more the contestants suffer, and the more the audience squirms, the more "entertaining" the whole thing becomes.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights say the show is exploitative and deeply distasteful, and that its Spanish title - which translates as "Win the Green" - is misleading.

"People are asking, ‘Is it true? Can I get a Green Card through eating worms?’ - and once we tell them the truth that, no, there’s actually no guarantee of that, then of course they feel it’s disgusting, it’s degrading," said Professor Victor Nieblas, a member of the board of governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

"This show plays on people’s fears. It targets the desperate people in our society, people who want to find a way of legally staying in the country, so they fall prey to the spin and the misrepresentation of this show."

Despite its title, the game-show does not have Green Cards to give away, nor has it forged an alliance with the notoriously impenetrable immigration service to rush people through the system to the final goal of legal residency papers.

The prize is a year’s services from a team of immigration lawyers, who will work on the winner’s Green Card, with no guarantee of success. The process of gaining a Green Card often takes several years.

To Ms De la Luz, who scooped the prize on one episode, eating worms was a small price for a crack at the American dream. "Getting my Green Card will open a lot of opportunities for me. You have to risk something to get something," she said.

For other contestants, the list of gruesome challenges has included munching live scorpions, beetles and crabs, catching a pig slathered in slippery butter, being dragged several hundred yards by horses, lying in a sealed coffin with 500 rats and leaping from a juggernaut travelling at 60mph.

Gana La Verde, launched last month, airs five times a week on Spanish-language stations in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and San Diego, reaching one million Hispanic households per episode and even beating NBC’s Fear Factor, the more mainstream show on which it is partly modelled, in the Hispanic popularity ratings.

Its opening credits feature a mock-up of contestants battling through the barbed wire that marks the US-Mexico frontier as US Border Patrol helicopters whirr overhead, playing on a scene that haunts many who make the crossing.

The programme’s maker, Houston-based Liberman Broadcasting, argues that it is doing illegal immigrants a service and that Gana La Verde is eminently more purposeful than other game-shows that offer anything from instant brides to cosmetic surgery as prizes. Contestants sign a 20-page set of rules that spell out clearly that there is no guarantee of a Green Card, explained the company’s executive vice-president, Lenard Liberman, who claimed there have been no complaints from viewers or participants, though one advertiser has withdrawn its custom in disgust.

"We’re just trying to help people out here. I don’t know what all the controversy’s about," Mr Liberman 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."

Liberman has agreed to meet protesters next month to discuss the controversy. But he has rejected calls by a coalition of groups, including the AILA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and the Mexican American Bar Association, to scrap the series, a demand spelt out in a protest letter that told him: "Each day Gana La Verde is on the air demonstrates your contempt for immigrants."

The US immigration service has agreed. "It sounds very much like exploitation," it says.

The issue of illegal immigration is a sensitive one. There are 8.7 million illegal immigrants in the US. Of the 35 million people living in California, 2.2 million are recorded by the US Census Bureau as illegal aliens - the majority of them from across the border in Mexico.

Some obtain work visas and find jobs in the agriculture industry and pay taxes, but their presence costs the US government $10 billion (£5.5 billion) a year, according to a new report published this week by the Centre for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Human-rights groups say there is an urgent need to improve the creaking system through which undocumented immigrants can apply for legal status.

Prof Nieblas said yesterday: "A lot of people are in the process of obtaining their legal residency, but because of the backlogs they have to go undercover and into hiding because their visas have expired.

"People are waiting years and years, and when they see an opportunity like this show it attracts them because they have tried everything else.

"They think, ‘I saw it on TV, so it must be true - they are giving away Green Cards for eating bugs. Where do I sign up?’"

He added: "This programme makes a mockery of our immigration laws. The system is broken, and we need to fix it."


GANA La Verde is the latest in a series of US productions to be accused of turning human suffering into a televisual spectacle.

One of the most notorious was Bumfights, a video showing tramps brawling or engaging in bizarre stunts in exchange for food, alcohol and money.

The film, which was followed by a production called Bag Lady Beatings, showed scenes such as a drug-addicted homeless man setting his hair on fire, and another being offered 25 cents to drink window-cleaning fluid. One subject even rammed his head through a glass window, egged on by the teenage videomakers, and rode down a flight of stairs in a shopping trolley. In another scene, a man was given a pair of pliers, with which he pulled out one of his teeth.

The three producers were each fined $500 (£278) and placed on probation last year for conspiring to stage an illegal fight. Three of the homeless people featured have launched civil lawsuits against them.

The videos have earned producers millions of dollars, selling at $20 (£11) each over the internet.

In the same way that Gana la Verde (Win the Green) has drawn accusations of exploitation, advocates for the homeless complained that Bumfights and Bag Lady Beatings took advantage of the vulnerable, poked fun at a serious social problem and amounted to hate crimes.

A wave of copycat incidents followed the films’ release. The young film-makers are unrepentant, however, and say a third production is likely.

Bumfights is at the extreme end of a genre that is taking the United States and Europe by storm. Jackass, a television show in which participants perform dangerous or sick stunts on each other, has attracted millions of viewers, and last year spawned a £50 million-grossing film.

But in several incidents, viewers have ignored the "don’t do this at home" warnings and copied the stunts. Earlier this year it was reported that a British waitress had been accused of killing a drunken man by persuading him to run head-first into a wall to win drinks. Gerhard Renzl was wearing a crash helmet when he did it - a stunt apparently copied from Jackass - but he broke his neck. A court in Salzburg, Austria, ruled that the waitress was not to blame.
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