Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fox and NYT agree: calling Sotomayor's Puerto Rican parents "immigrants" was a mistake

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is the daughter of U.S. citizens

Mabel Arroyo and Blue Collar Muse weigh in

Now here's something you don't see every day: both the New York Times and Fox News make the same mistake and subsequently agree that it's a mistake, namely, that they erroneously called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor the daughter of Puerto Rican "immigrants" (see the Times' correction at the bottom of this article, and see Fox News' original and corrected paragraph about her parents here and here). Since Puerto Ricans have been U.S. nationals since 1898 and U.S. citizens since 1917, and since "immigrate" means moving from one country to another, the term "immigrant" does not apply to Puerto Ricans.

At least twice in recent memory, Tennesseans have made the news doing this same thing - discounting the American-ness of Puerto Ricans. In 2006, a few Lewisburg, Tennessee residents drew nationwide scorn (see one example here) when they questioned the U.S. citizenship of their new librarian Nely Rivera, the New Jersey-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents. In 2003, a clerk at a Murfreesboro Road driver service center confiscated the documents of license renewal applicant Damarys Rodriguez Rivera, in part on the erroneous belief that Puerto Rico was not part of the United States.

When I heard Yale magna cum laude grad Ari Shapiro call Sotomayor's parents "Puerto Rican immigrants" on Tuesday's Morning Edition on NPR, I wondered whether Shapiro had fact-checked and actually discovered some justification for calling Sotomayor's Puerto Rican parents immigrants. I didn't know my Puerto Rican history offhand; I just knew that Puerto Rican citizens are currently U.S. citizens. Maybe the timing was such that Sotomayor's parents could possibly be Puerto Ricans but not U.S. citizens? No, the U.S. status of all Puerto Ricans goes back two turns of centuries, so that couldn't be it.

On what basis would one rightly say that Puerto Ricans are immigrants? Well, if you believe in the theory that the person being identified is the best authority on that person's identity, Liza of Culture Kitchen would say that both she and Sotomayor* call Puerto Ricans immigrants, and that there is a separateness of Puerto Ricans among Americans that justifies the distinction.

I decided to turn to Nashville attorney Mabel Arroyo and Nashville blogger Blue Collar Muse for their thoughts, since Arroyo is a native of Puerto Rico and a member of both the Nashville and Puerto Rico Bar Associations, and BCM's paternal grandfather was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Both agreed that Puerto Ricans are not immigrants.

If you define immigration as the movement of people to a country where they were not born in order to settle there (which I think is the correct definition in the Sotomayor context) the answer is no. Puerto Rican are U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., so when a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico moves to the mainland he/she is not immigrating. A lot of people don't know that U.S. immigration law does not apply to U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico.
I would not classify any Puerto Rican as an immigrant. They are American citizens by birth. They are Puerto Ricans. Just like Tennesseans are American citizens by birth. If a Tennessean moves to Kentucky, they are not an immigrant. They are an American citizen moving from one state to another. While Puerto Rico is not a state, it can fairly be said to be analogous to DC. If someone moves from Washington D.C. to New York would you also say they were immigrants? Unlikely. If you would, you should likely be prepared for some push back.
Hey, it's not me calling Puerto Ricans immigrants. It's the New York Times, Fox News and just about everyone else, at least until they catch themselves and issue a correction (speaking of which, Lewisburg resident Nely Rivera was backed up by her boss and the mayor, and Nashvillian Damarys Rivera was eventually given her license and her seized documents).

Then again, Liza of Culture Kitchen says it's OK. And maybe even Sotomayor herself.

Bonus trivia question: which sitting Supreme Court justice said the following:
[W]hen a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that position…

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.
Hat tip to Mizanur Rahman for his Houston Chronicle blog post on this same subject

*Note to Liza: is this the Sotomayor comment you're referring to: "Like many other immigrants to this great land, my parents came..."

Photo by Ulises Jorge Bidó. Licensed under Creative Commons.

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I believe that the "Sotomayor is a daughter of immigrants," with the implication (sometimes overtly stated) that her parents could be "illegal immigrants" is meant to whip up the extremist-nationalist base of the right wing. One of the few ways these extremists have open to them to undermine the nomination process.


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