Immigration has emerged as one of the most controversial issues in American society and politics in recent years. As Faiza Elmasry reports, the latest voice in the ongoing debate comes from Hispanic-American reporter Geraldo Rivera.
Throughout his career as a television journalist and talk show host, Geraldo Rivera has often tackled America's most controversial and divisive issues. And that's what he continues to do in his latest book, His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S.
Rivera starts out on a personal note. He talks about his father, Cruz Rivera, the sixth of 17 children born to Juan and Tomasa Rivera. At age 21, he says, his father decided to leave Puerto Rico, come to America and stay forever.
"My Dad came in 1937 on a banana boat, one of the vessels that were flying the Caribbean bringing bananas and fruits from the tropics up to the city (New York City)," he says. "He met my Mom, a Jewish lady from New Jersey. He was the counterman in a restaurant. She was a waitress. They fell in love."
They got married. The Riveras continued to work hard and settled down in Brooklyn.
"It's a story that's like so many tens of millions before and after us," he says. "All my Dad ever wanted was for us to grow up and be assimilated, to be Americans, real Americans."
Becoming real Americans, he says, is what motivates immigrants to adapt to their new life.
"America has a way of changing immigrants much more than immigrants change America," he says. "The problem is to teach our children Spanish. That's the problem. English is everywhere. You can't find a second generation immigrant in this country who doesn't speak English."
Over the last 5 decades, the number of Hispanic immigrants in the United States has grown tenfold.
"In 1950, in the U.S., there were 4 million Hispanics," he says. "Now, there are 45 million in the U.S. It's projected that Hispanics will be 25 percent of the entire U.S. population by 2040. We are already the largest minority in the U.S."
Rivera notes that there are many nationalities in that large minority, and that they are not treated equally when they arrive in the U.S.
"Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States ever since 1917," he says. "We can't vote in the presidential elections if we live in Puerto Rico, but if we live here we can vote. Then you compare the way that Cubans are treated when they get here to the way Haitians are treated when they get here. The Haitians, if they arrive on our shores, they are immediately detained and deported. A Cuban, if they touch our land, they can stay. Some of it has to do with the fact that we are anti-Castro, anti-communist Cuba."
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that more than 12 million Hispanic immigrants are in the United States illegally. Most have crossed the border from Mexico. Rivera says this influx was not seen as a serious problem until recently.
"Mexican immigrants, drawn by lax border enforcement and a paying job, hundreds of thousands, come across the southern border to work in the fields and ranches of the Southwest," he says. "They come to work in the meat processing plants and poultry packing plants. They populated some small towns in the south that had been abandoned by their original residents. But then, 9/11 happened, and everyone started to clamor about terrorism and securing the borders and the poor Latin American immigrants got caught in between."
Rivera says many law-abiding Hispanic-Americans are facing discrimination and mistreatment as a result of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
"There are many instances now where citizens, Hispanics, are being asked for a proof of status, a proof of citizenship because they have brown skin or a moustache," he says. "A guy called me, a naturalized citizen who came originally from Mexico. He has a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old son who were born here. Obviously, they are citizens. The kids come home crying from school saying, 'Dad, what is the border jumper?' They were being called border jumpers by the kids in their school."
In his book, Geraldo Rivera outlines why many Americans fear Hispanics… and why they shouldn't.
"We're seeing immigrants, particularly Hispanics, being blamed for bringing crimes and disease, stealing jobs from native born Americans and spreading terrorism," he says. "Ninety-seven-and-a-half percent of the people in the American prisons are citizens. Immigrants by every study I've seen commit fewer crimes than citizens. They don't bring in disease. They are not terrorists. There has not been a single terrorist penetration of our southern border yet. I interviewed the Homeland Security Secretary and asked him three times that question. There has never been one."
Rivera says the message of his book is simple and clear.
"You don't want to send a message to the world that America is open to everybody who can get here," he says. "That's not the message you want to send. You need control. You need to know who is here. But, for goodness sake, you also need to be compassionate and broadminded. You need a dual approach, a stricter border and an amnesty program or a path to an earned citizenship or at least a visa. So the 12 million [illegal Hispanic immigrants] or more who are here can live their lives normalized without fears of retribution or arrest or deportation and families being split up and all the rest of that."
Hispanics, Geraldo Rivera says, are not the first wave of immigrants to spark mistrust and controversy… nor will they be the last. Developing a practical and humane immigration policy, he says, is essential for a nation that was created and made great by the contributions of immigrants.