RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When it comes to immigration, Geraldo Rivera puts himself on the side that has repeatedly lost. The television host has written a book favoring the kind of immigration policies that Congress defeated in each of the last two years. Rivera says he's following up on a televised argument. He got in a screaming match with his fellow Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.
Mr. GERALDO RIVERA (Television host, author of "His Panic"): It has nothing to do with that…
Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Fox News Host): You want anarchy.
Mr. RIVERA: It has nothing to do with that mayor.
Mr. O'REILLY: No, you want anarchy.
Mr. RIVERA: No, we're not…
Mr. O'REILLY: You want open-border anarchy.
Mr. RIVERA: What I - what I want is fairness.
Mr. O'REILLY: Fairness, bull.
Mr. RIVERA: We have lured these peo - we have lured these people into this country…
Mr. O'REILLY: Oh yeah.
Mr. RIVERA: …with a promise of jobs.
Mr. O'REILLY: Nobody is…
Mr. RIVERA: …in a country with basically full domestic employment. We have for decades lured them here and now we are starting a mob…
MONTAGNE: Geraldo Rivera's book is called His Panic. It's his effort to explain why so many Americans are concerned about illegal immigration. It also tells the personal story of a T.V. star of Puerto Rican decent. Steve Inskeep talked to him to find out how Hispanics have changed and how Geraldo has changed.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Was there a time in your life when you would have gladly answered to somebody calling you Jerry?
Mr. RIVERA: Yes, as a youngster, in my family, bending over backwards to be American, it was kind of a natural thing. I never thought about it much until I got older.
INSKEEP: How did your family bend over backwards to be American when they came here from Puerto Rico, which was run by the United States, but in some ways apart from it?
Mr. RIVERA: My dad, he came in 1937 literally on a banana boat and he was actually working as a counterman and in charge, somewhat, of the dishwashing duties at the coffee shop where my mom, Lilly Friedman from Jersey City, worked as a waitress - and that's how they met. Then my very Puerto Rican dad and my very stereotypical Jewish mom fell in love, married, moved out to Long Island. And once we got there, all my dad wanted to be was an American.
INSKEEP: And you didn't learn Spanish when you were growing up?
Mr. RIVERA: No, not until they sent me at the age of 15 to live with my grandparents in Puerto Rico. That's where I learned it. Then ironically my own children, and I think that this tracks the Hispanic-American experience, my kids, I am forcing them to live in a bilingual environment. I'm really - I think that one of the great myths is that America's gonna be like Canada and Quebec where part of the people are speaking one language and the rest speaking...
INSKEEP: Separatist movements and that sort of thing?
Mr. RIVERA: Not even a separatist movement, just two countries divided by language and that English, the language that unites us will be diluted as the unifying force and that's just a myth. Every study going back a century, shows that Latino immigrants are learning English at the same rate as any other immigrant group before them, probably at an accelerated rate.
INSKEEP: Well, this is one of the reasons I ask about your personal history. You quote a study in here which says that the longer people remained - Hispanics remained in the United States - the less likely they were to identify themselves as white, the idea being that they embrace their Hispanic identity more forcefully.
Mr. RIVERA: That's a curious phenomenon. I was surprised by it and it varies within the Hispanic community. What we are experiencing is a kind of a parallel movement to when black was adopted by African-Americans as a kind of catchall to describe an entire race of people whether they were off-white or chocolate brown and I think now that we have some kind of sense of political identity, we've become brown and it is a unifier. It applies to people whether they come from Spain or Argentina or East Harlem, you can be brown and still be a patriotic American.
INSKEEP: Well what was happening in your family that would make the difference between your father, who tried to blend in as much as possible, and your decision as you grew up to say that everyone should be calling you Geraldo, to grow that mustache, to embrace that Hispanic identity?
Mr. RIVERA: I think a lot of it is the time in which my dad and I grew to adulthood, my dad coming back after World War II from his service in the Army, all he wanted to do was be that ideal American. I, on the other hand, came up in the '60s living on the Lower East Side of New York, not on Long Island, down there where you had an amazing awaking in terms of ethnic pride and activism. It was easy for me. I remember 1968, the year I grew my mustache and haven't shaved it since. I was ferocious in my desire to manifest to everybody I knew that look, I come from this ethnic group that you haven't heard a lot of, or if you have, that usually in the context of some faceless migrant worker. Well, you know there's more to us. And I said, don't ever call me Jerry. No one calls me Jerry and you can't call me Jerry unless you knew me before 1950.
INSKEEP: Well, I guess what I'm driving at is this. Is something happening with Hispanics, as an immigrant group, that is different from the way that Jews or Italians or Irish or any number of other people have assimilated over the decades.
Mr. RIVERA: No. That's why I'm so hurt when I see how many of the most fervent anti-immigrant activists are themselves the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The style changes, the accents change, the geographical antecedents change, but it's the same. You can track, headline for headline, the response to the Irish wave of immigration in the mid-19th century to the reaction of the Minutemen and similar radical anti-immigration groups today.
It's a hysterical whipping-up of a mob frenzy on an issue that should be recognized that it is part of a process that makes this country unique, and by exacerbating the differentness of the newcomers, what they do is a gross disservice. It's really offensive to me and you don't hear the point of view that I'm expressing right now very often.
INSKEEP: What do you say, though, to the average American, who surveys show is out there, who may say, look I don't feel like I'm a prejudiced person. I'm the child of immigrants, the grandchild of immigrants, but I'm concerned about law and order and people coming here legally and making sure that there is border security and that we know who's going in and out of the country. What do you say to that person?
Mr. RIVERA: I say a lot of things to that person. My first point is are you really concerned about quote, unquote "border security" or are you concerned about the changing demographic face of the United States.
Example, if it is terrorism that you are concerned about and you want this fence built between the United States and Mexico, why don't you want the same fence built between the United States and Canada? Why isn't there this clamor? You know, it's clearly revealed as what it is. It is not a fear of terrorism, it is not a fear of crime, because survey after survey demonstrates that those living in the shadow of fear of deportation are less likely to commit crimes. It's not crime. It's not terror. It is demographics that is the true fear. If we wanted secure borders, what about the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts?
INSKEEP: One final question, Geraldo, you mentioned that you are pretty rigorous about trying to get your children to speak both Spanish and English. How do they respond to that?
Mr. RIVERA: Oh, Dad, Dad, talk English to me, Dad. You know, they respond like every other kid. Dad, I'm watching MTV, don't bother me. Dad, I'm on Facebook. We'll see, you know, the English is easy, English is everywhere, but I'd love them - you know my father always used to say (Spanish spoken). If you have two languages, it's like having two souls and it only makes you richer, more horizon-broadened person.
INSKEEP: Geraldo Rivera's new book is called "His Panic." Thanks very much.
Mr. RIVERA: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And of course you can read an excerpt of "His Panic" at npr.org.
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