This Journalist's Pooh-Pooh Of A Caller's Question About Vetting Puerto Ricans Is Perfect

Xenophobia is less about "border control" than it is about the fear of cultural differences.

In an interview on C-SPAN about his upcoming book, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, Tom Gjelten came face-to-face with the tide of xenophobia that defined the 2016 election season. While he was receiving calls from viewers, a man from Washington state named Brian dialed in to discuss his fears about immigration. 

First touting his pride in his Norwegian ancestry, Brian asked Gjetlen his opinion on the "migration that is coming from Puerto Rico" in light of the island's staggering financial debt. Brian claimed that there were "1,000 Puerto Ricans a week, not considered immigrants but coming to the United States as U.S. citizens with no vetting." Why weren't people talking about this? Brian wanted to know.

"Well, the reason it's not being discussed — and you alluded to it — is 'cause they're not immigrants. Puerto Rico is not a state, but Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens," Gjelten responded. He cited vast population movements in times of economic turmoil or opportunity in the past, like the Dust Bowl, when severe drought in the Great Plains spurred migration, as well as African Americans moving to the cities from the South during the Great Migration. 


The caller was right, Gjelten said, that Puerto Rico was experiencing a deep financial crisis. It's not a far leap to wonder if Brian was concerned about the exodus of Puerto Ricans from the archipelago to other parts of the country because he associates Puerto Rico with Latin American countries that have been the focal points of anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years.

According to a YouGov-Economist survey, 41 percent of respondents think that the nationality of a person born in Puerto Rico is Puerto Rican. Only 43 percent correctly said that Puerto Ricans hold American citizenship. 15 percent answered "not sure."

Gjetlen told the caller that he didn't understand why there would be a special policy for Americans from Puerto Rico. "Those people have every right to move to some other state, some other part of the country where there are more jobs," he said. "We don't vet people that move from one state to another, from one part of America to another. That's their right as Americans to move."

Watch Gjetlen's full interview below:

Cover image via Glynnis Jones /


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