Jewish World Review June 30, 1999 /16 Tamuz, 5759
"The pilgrims sailed the sea
REALITY-BASED TV programming hit rock bottom this year. The networks sank from "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Most Wanted" to America's deadliest storms, bloodiest car chases, scariest emergency-room operations, and most rabid pets. There's nowhere left for the infotainment industry to go but up.
So here's my idea for a reality-based TV special that might bring new meaning -- and perhaps even redemption -- to a bankrupt genre. The educational show would air every Fourth of July. Instead of musty paeans to patriotism or dumbed-down history cartoons, the program would feature amazing-but-true tales of foreign stowaways who risked their lives to reach our shores.
"America: Most Wanted" would not be an endorsement of illegal immigration, open borders, or an expanded welfare state for the huddled masses. Its objective is simple: Show the Jerry Springer generation that people really will do the things in pursuit of the freedom we so ignominiously take for granted.
The local papers, for example, reported on the discovery of 19 Chinese men who hid in a cargo container on the storm-tossed decks of a freighter as it crossed the Pacific Ocean. This wasn't three centuries ago. It happened earlier this spring. For real. After two weeks in the container ship, the modern-day pilgrims landed in the Port of Tacoma in late April and were immediately arrested after enduring a harrowing journey.
"This is part of a troubling trend," Bob Coleman, local deputy district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It "fits an existing pattern of soft-top container smuggling." The INS learned that the stowaways, including one teen, had agreed to pay as much as $40,000 each to reach the United States.
Can you imagine that, my fellow Americans? While you were parked on the couch watching Fluffy go postal on candid camera, mindlessly popping open your third can of Bud, 19 guys paid for the privilege of stuffing themselves into a covered cargo box - no bathroom, no windows, no TV! - in search of better lives in the U.S.
These real-life stowaway stories are more hair-raising than anything broadcast on the Fox Network. I keep a folder of newspaper clippings to remind me of the steep price some will pay for independence. One unidentified man, found frozen to death in the summer of 1987, had lashed himself to the landing gear of a Boeing 747 en route from Argentina to Los Angeles. (Aeromedical experts say the temperature inside an unpressurized, uninsulated wheel well at 30,000 to 40,000 feet plunges to 70 to 80 degrees below zero.)
And there were the 10 smuggled passengers who drowned when the decrepit freighter "Golden Venture" ran aground off Queens, N.Y., six years ago.
But no tale is more tragic than that of Mahmoud and Kataun Ayazi, Iranian newlyweds with big dreams. Mahmoud, 31, and Kataun, 20, flew from Iran to Germany after marrying. Mahmoud was an electrician and legal immigrant who wanted to bring his new bride to the U.S. When her visa was denied, they agreed she'd get into a soft-sided suitcase - 16 inches by 33 by 10 - and smuggle her into Los Angeles International Airport in 1985. She didn't survive the nearly 11-hour flight. Mahmoud left the luggage at the airport carousel after discovering her dead body, then purchased a gun and shot himself to death.
Gruesome but true. Greg Gourley, an educator who runs a citizenship program in Bellevue, recounted the Ayazis' plight in a recent newsletter he distributes to aspiring Americans. The vivid story "demonstrates the extreme measures some people take to leave their family and home and come to America," he wrote. "Those of us born in the USA are fortunate because we're Americans from the beginning. We're born in a free country with vast opportunities.
"We may not always realize how lucky we are, but when in doubt I ask everyone to remember that today no one immigrates to Cuba. No one jumped over the wall into East Berlin and no one seeks refuge in Russia or China. For much of the world, America is still spelled O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y. The question I ask native-born Americans is: `How do you spell America?' "
For just a moment, put down your beer can and remote control this Fourth of July weekend and think about Gourley's question. You won't find the answer in the listless depths of a boob-tube