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Rivera Takes on Anti-Immigrant Fervor in 'His Panic'

Mar 4, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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The hostility by some anti-immigrant activists against Hispanics is no different from that directed against earlier generations of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants, Geraldo Rivera says.

"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," Rivera tells Steve Inskeep. "And by exacerbating the differentness of the newcomers, what they do is a gross disservice."

When it comes to immigration, 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 past two years.

Rivera says he's following up on a televised argument in which he got into a screaming match (video) with his fellow Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.

Rivera's book is called His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S. It's his effort to explain why so many Americans are concerned about illegal immigration. It also tells the personal story of a TV star of Puerto Rican descent. To understand how Hispanics have changed — and how Rivera has changed — it's worth remembering that he was not always known as Geraldo.

His father, who emigrated from Puerto Rico in 1937, and his mother, a Jewish woman from Jersey City, met while working at a New York City coffee shop. Rivera learned Spanish when his parents sent him, at 15, to live with his grandparents in Puerto Rico.

"My dad coming back after World War II from his service in the Army ... all he wanted to do was be that ideal American," Rivera says. "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 awakening in terms of ethnic pride and activism."

In 1968, Rivera grew his 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, 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.' "

Rivera says the Hispanic assimilation experience is no different from that of previous immigrants.

"Many of the most fervent anti-immigrant activists are themselves the children or grandchildren of immigrants," he says. "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."

Those people who say they're worried about border security are being disingenuous, Rivera says.

"Are you really concerned about 'border security,' or are you concerned about the changing demographic face of the United States? [For] 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 ... ?

"It's not [fear of] 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?"

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