November 27, 2015

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First Mediaworks

Special Report: Up Against A Wall (05/19/08)

By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard

Geraldo Rivera is one of the most well-known figures in media. His hard-hitting, sometimes controversial reporting has led him across the country and around the world, with his desire to tell track down and tell a compelling story always at forefront.

Today, Rivera is taking a frontline stance on the issue of immigration reform, both as a guest on others’ programs and through his own Fox News Channel weekly show, Geraldo At Large. In his new book, His Panic, Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S., Rivera outlines why he believes the U.S. must take action to legitimize the status of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country, and shares with readers the sometimes hateful messages he receives from viewers that reveal how sensitive and divisive this issue has become.

In advance of his scheduled appearance as keynote speaker for the second annual Radio Ink Hispanic Radio Conference, Rivera discussed why he believes amnesty for the nation’s undocumented immigrants makes sense, why citizens have nothing to fear from these millions of people who currently must live in the shadows, and why — under the right circumstances — he’d support construction of a wall along the U.S-Mexican border.

Radio Ink: Immigrants assimilating into the cultural fabric of the U.S. is a hot-button issue. Where is the middle ground between those immigrants who choose to sacrifice their heritage to fit in and Americans who want to force immigrants to speak English?
Geraldo Rivera:
Is there a middle ground? The one thing President Bush hit exactly right was the need for comprehensive immigration reform that has as its main component strengthening enforcement at the border — as they are doing with a vengeance — but also a recognition that the vast majority of the 12 million people here without proper documentation are hard-working, honest, otherwise innocent people who came in pursuit of the American dream. You can’t round them up a la World War II, put them in a bunch of cattle cars, and transport them to Mexico. There has to be a compassionate approach to the immigration problem. We have to recognize that they’re here, and they’re not going anywhere. We have to get them out of the shadows. Many of their children are already citizens, so let’s remove the fear of the heel coming down on them, and give some kind of normalization to their status.

If that can be done, then I’ll be with the hardliners in terms of border enforcement and a wall if that’s what they want. I think it’s a waste of money, but if that’s what they want I’m willing to concede that in search of the middle ground. Just give me some humanitarian way to deal with people who are already here.

RI: If amnesty is granted, will it encourage more people to immigrate illegally?
Amnesty is a charged word. Amnesty is what we essentially offered the Irish in the middle of the 19th century. It’s what Ellis Island was: “Send me your huddled masses yearning the breathe freedom” mainly meant the white people from Europe. There was no immigration policy until the 1920s; unless you were a prostitute, a convict, or had an infectious disease, everyone was granted the amnesty that has suddenly become so taboo. This is a nation made up of immigrants. Rather than live in some kind of institutionalized fear of them, recognize that one of the reasons America has been great is that we have drawn of immigrant vigor from the four corners of the world; we embraced that energy, we embraced that diversity. We’re different than any other nation that ever existed on this planet. We’re better — and we’re better because of our immigrants. The Hispanics are just the latest over the bridge. We’re no different than the groups that preceded us. The fact that we are neighbors in contiguous countries and that one-third of our country used to belong to Mexico are all reasons we should be more open-minded and compassionate, not closed-minded and xenophobic.

RI: How can the U.S. effectively patrol the large Mexican border?
Ever since that line was drawn in the middle of the 19th century, border enforcement has been honored more in the breach than in the prosecution. We were on the verge of internationalizing our workforce prior to 9/11. George Bush and Vicente Fox, the then-newly elected president of Mexico — a very progressive guy, we thought then — were on the verge of a kind of North American Free Trade Agreement for labor. The attacks on the Twin Towers — and I’m looking at that site right from my window — changed everything. We were attacked from a foreign source, so we hunkered down, as we always do when faced with an enemy from abroad.

We took all of these steps to protect ourselves, but the hammer fell most heavily on the most vulnerable among us. I submit that the trans-border workforce was one of the victims of 9/11. As we tracked down on the threat of “terror” and sent these enhanced security forces to the border, who are we prosecuting? Who are we hurting? A group that, but for their “crime” of unlawful entry, are otherwise just the kind of people we’d like to live next to.

Everybody wants to live in America. Who doesn’t want an American passport? That’s why we need some control of who’s here.

The notion that there might be a spike in demand in the months coming up to an immigration compromise — I only wish that’s what we had to worry about. I fear that, as presently constituted, this Congress will never vote for immigration reform. Until the Latino population understands that, the only way they’re going to get this done is if they exercise their legal franchise to vote. Three-quarters of us are here legally. We are 45 million of the population, up from 5 million in 1950; there is a demographic reality coming, through which we can advocate and work and actually perform our own reform. But until then, I feel very gloomy. I feel this country has really divided along racial lines in a way that is being exacerbated not only by the presidential election, but even more severely by the immigration debate. The most savage talk radio campaign in the history of the world is propagandizing the issue, augmented by cable news show like Lou Dobbs. I feel very gloomy about any chance of reform at any level, and I am running out of patience.

RI: Is there resentment among immigrants who came here legally toward undocumented immigrants?
The phenomenon that’s so frustrating is this: How is it that as soon as one particular group gets across the bridge into the United States, we want to burn the bridge? If we harness this energy, this vigor, I think we’d be a better country. Of course you need to have some limitations and you have to know who’s in your country; you need to inventory. I can’t figure out columnist Michelle Malkin, a Filipino who is advocating that we snitch out illegals. Filipinos are the third-largest group of undocumented workers here; there are one million illegal Filipinos here according to the Filipino Report. I wonder if she’d turn in a Filipino housemaid in her Georgetown condo.

Our immigration policy has always been race-based. You can go back to the 19th century’s “Irish Need Not Apply” signs, or how German immigrants were blasted for bringing in disease and quarantine centers were burned. Or the Italians — once the National Origins Act was passed in 1924 the policy went from any Italian could come to this country to just 1.5 percent of all available visas. They cut them down on racial grounds. Our policy has always been directed against the other race.

RI: Can anything be done to change the mindset of the most ardent opponents to immigration reform?
Perhaps he said it inartfully, but Barack Obama may have had it right when he said there is a bitterness. Jimmy Carter, to his regret later on, called it a national malaise. There is a feeling in the country that people are losing control, and a lot of it is driven by the propaganda. The Lou Dobbs’ and Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs are driving a lot of this. They didn’t create the problem, but they’re certainly exacerbating the problem. It’s deep-seated; working people feel that they’re losing control over their lives and of the notion that their kids will be better off than they are. That somehow they’re losing the ability to live the American dream and climb the socio-economic ladder. So they start looking for scapegoats.

We have the immigration debate every generation, but what is very distressing is that, generally speaking, the debate happens in a bad time. During the Depression nobody immigrated to America. But this crisis broke out in a time of record employment. Now, as times get tougher and unemployment ticks up, I’m holding my breath that the economy doesn’t sink any further. Because as bad as it is now, it will get worse as times get tougher.

I wish it was only the extremists; they’ll never be talked out of it. It’s the middle-of-the-road people. If McCain doesn’t drift too far to the right, I think any new resident of the White House could get the word out that immigrants are not bringing crime, they’re not bringing disease. If anything, they’re helping the economy. If they have the courage to say that, maybe they could get the middle away from the anti-immigration extremists.

It’s a rough, rough time, and it’s being made that much worse by people going on radio and television and telling lies that no one is calling them on. There is no standard of journalism when it comes to reporting. What I can do, and what I intend to do, is name names and say shame on you. I addressed the heads of a group of Hispanic nonprofit organizations recently, and a bunch of business guys from the sponsoring agencies were in attendance. I let them have it. I told them you can’t sit there quietly and allow this freight train to roll over us, because it’s not just affecting undocumenteds. It’s affecting the whole bunch of us.

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