José from Brooklyn stunned me with his call to the radio show. “Puerto Ricans are citizens, what do we care about immigration,” he asked disdainfully?
I had been on one of my broadcast rants about the need to have compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform when I took his call. Expecting a Kumbaya moment from a supportive brother calling the show from the hood, instead his remarks stopped me short. I stuttered something about all Latinos being brothers.
But he cut me off saying, “not out here in Bushwick,” referring to the heavily Puerto Rican and Dominican Brooklyn neighborhood, which has experienced an influx of Mexican and South American immigrants in recent years, many of them undocumented.
It is where the rubber hits the road on the issue of whether liberalized immigration policies hurt poor citizens. Located east of Broadway, the main drag which is perpetually shadowed by the elevated subway, it is working class and relatively stable. Six-story tenements and smaller brownstone buildings are fairly well kept and crime is way down in the 83rd Precinct from the bad old days following the 1977 blackout and subsequent looting. Then half the storefronts were vacant, and drug use was rampant. Now, although 5% of the private homes are in foreclosure and 75% of the kids live below the poverty level, it is a functioning neighborhood proud of actors Rosie Perez, Chris Rock and other prominent alumni.
José hung up before I got the chance to ask him why he felt the way he did; whether immigrants had ever really had a negative impact on his life. Instead, I went on talking to the invisible radio audience about how immigrant newcomers had breathed new entrepreneurial life into many moribund storefronts, opening bodegas, tire stores, taco restaurants and butcher shops in neighborhoods like Bushwick and Manhattan’s El Barrio and Washington Heights.
But José’s remarks hung like a wet blanket over my exuberance. Whatever the actual impact of immigration on urban angst he was telling me that he had enough to worry about without expanding his anxieties to include concern for the newcomers from down south.
Thinking about the incident, I’m wondering now whether some citizen Latinos aren’t succumbing to the incessantly negative media portrayal of “illegal aliens?” The issue is most urgent in Florida where the Republican knife fight for the presidential nomination is fully engaged. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are locked in a bitter bilingual battle for the hearts and minds of Florida’s vast Hispanic vote, 22.5% of the population. Both are using saturation Spanish-language ads, in Romney’s case voiced by his son.
Romney’s son says his dad believes in the American Dream.
Gingrich’s Spanish ad slashes Romney as an anti-immigrant Liberal who made the mistake during the 2008 campaign of talking about ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos!’ (Fatherland or Death, We Shall Overcome), which typical of dorky Romney was actually a phrase popularized by Fidel Castro, the anti-Christ for many older generation Cuban-American exiles in South Florida.
Back in 2008, Romney had his same selective take ‘em prisoner’s policy when it came to illegal immigrants. He campaigned harshly against them in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but not in Florida. Similarly, his 2012 Florida ads make no reference to those draconian round them up and send them back proposals.
Of a GOP field distinguished by its lack of sympathy for the undocumented, only the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich has expressed a scintilla of compassion.
So now it comes down to the José from Bushwick moment: will the settled, citizen, conservative Cuban-Americans who dominate Florida Republican politics remember those less fortunate immigrant Latinos being targeted by former governor Romney, and vote for Gingrich? Or will they agree with Romney’s more restricted version of the American Dream?
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.