On July 17, Tucker Carlson aired an inflammatory segment entitled "Gypsies: Coming to America," about rising tensions between residents of California, Pennsylvania —a small borough near Pittsburgh — and a group of Roma who recently settled there.
Carlson noted that about 40 "gypsies" are "seeking asylum, saying they suffered racism in their native Romania," and they were placed in the town "by the federal government," only to spurn local culture by engaging in "public defecation" and slaughtering chickens in view of residents.
It was an ugly segment, recalling some of the worst of anti-Roma propaganda. Unsurprisingly, it was based on a wildly ungenerous reading of the facts.
Carlson could have spoken to actual residents of California, Pennsylvania. He could have asked some of the recently arrived Roma about their struggles to communicate and integrate. He could have brought on an immigration expert to weigh in on the pros and cons of resettling members of a vulnerable population inside a different small, insular community.
Instead, he interviewed George Eli, a documentarian of Romani descent, who told Carlson that he "just learned of [the situation] through your producers."
"Immigration and immigrants are one thing," Eli said, admitting he was speculating. "But these people, they seem to be a little bit of not following the law."
Meanwhile, three days earlier, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette actually went to the borough and interviewed both locals and recent arrivals about the conflict.
Downtown California, Pennsylvania. Photo by VitaleBaby/Wikimedia Commons.
What they found is, unsurprisingly, much more nuanced than the picture Carlson and Eli painted.
- Yes, some residents are upset that many members of the few dozen Roma families have weak English skills and are "unfamiliar" with American culture. A few locals indeed claim to have witnessed some of the new arrivals' children defecating in public and others slaughtering poultry.
- Nonetheless, there have been "no instances of violence or aggression" reported among the group of newcomers.
- Vito Dentino, a local landlord who is renting properties to the asylum-seekers told the Post-Gazette they have been receptive of his advice. "They throw trash in their yards, but I’ve talked to them about that, and they clean it up. I think people around here are just overreacting."
- Other locals are organizing education and outreach efforts to help integrate the Roma families into the town's culture.
- Still others reject the idea that the asylum-seekers have been an issue altogether. "I have not had one problem with them," one lifelong resident told the paper. "I say hi to them. ... This is a community. Let's be human. This is not a fast process."
- Others have already started making friends. "We sat on the porch and ate and I learned some words," said another, a 28-year-old local who joined some of the newcomers at their home for dinner. "And it was awesome."
Demonizing Roma people as "unclean" and criminal has a long and ugly history.
The fervor reached its apex under the Nazis, who subjected members of the ethnic group to forced labor, deportation, and eventually, murder. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates over 200,000 Roma were killed between 1939 and 1945.
Roma children in France, 1937. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
A 2009 survey of European Union countries found that 1 in 4 Roma respondents had been assaulted, threatened, or harassed an average of four times within the past year.
Additionally, the Roma families were not settled in the town by the federal government, per Carlson's claim.
ICE told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the families who moved to the Pittsburgh borough were members of the asylum program, and the agency does not determine where they live.
Asylum-seekers are most frequently not detained, as many arrive in the U.S. on other visas. Most are allowed to remain and live freely while their application proceedings play out.
A civil debate on immigration and integration has to respect the desires and grievances on all sides.
Weighing the freedom of some to preserve a particular way of life against the freedom of others to live where and how they want is often — and understandably — challenging. But fear-mongering by reducing the behavior of an entire ethnic group to the most inflammatory acts of a small minority makes the integration process more fraught for all stakeholders.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.
Hate crimes against Muslims in April and June increased over 90% over the same time period in 2016, according to a Council on American-Islamic Relations analysis, amid President Trump's attempt to ban citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Rather than whipping up fear, we should be focused on finding solutions for all involved — citizens and immigrants alike.
Striking a balance between welcoming newcomers and preserving local traditions is not easy, and it rarely occurs without conflict. It happened during the wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s and the wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It's happening now.
But history demonstrates figuring out how to live together is not only possible, in many ways, it's inevitable.
Despite Carlson's incendiary commentary, its seems at least some of the residents of California, Pennsylvania, are well on their way there.
Update 7/27/2017: In an interview, George Eli explained that he took the interview to "educate" Carlson's audience and dispel stereotypes about American Roma, and he disagrees with the segment's portrayal of the California, Pennsylvania, families.
The documentarian, who co-chairs an effort to increase representation of American Roma in media, believes that some of his message got through, even if Carlson expressed other negative views about the community, "He did say, on camera, in front of his millions of viewers, 'Yeah, the Roma are not violent,'" Eli says. "To me, that’s a win."