Time Magazine mini-scandal highlights unexplored dimension to immigration debate

Sunday, July 11th, 2010
By: Jonathan MontagJ.D.

We are all likely familiar with the concept of the “culture wars,” wherein people debate the changes in the culture including issues like guns, sexuality, homosexuality, drugs, religion, and morality. Concerns run from whether to take your hat off indoors to gay marriage. Current manifestations are clear with the Tea Party and Sarah Palin’s soccer moms versus John Stewart and Steven Colbert. Often unnoticed in the media is that immigration is a front in the culture wars.

A generation ago, if you wanted to see recent immigration populations, say for for Chinese food or a canole, you went to the big cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. When you didn’t, you stayed home in your suburb or small town or smaller city. Now, recent immigrants are coming to you in Postville, Iowa, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Stillmore, Georgia. Like in any war there are at least two sides. On one side are those who argue that the new migrants are revitalizing depressed towns, bringing needed dependable labor to industries like agriculture and service industries, and helping to avoid a demographic catastrophe as the birth rate declines and the population ages. On the other side are those who argue that the newcomers, particularly those who are present without documents, show a disrespect for the law, do not share our common values, do not speak our language, do not share our culture (our religion (sic), our sports, our food, our ideas of comportment), and, of course, do not look like us. Also, many feel they take our jobs. (How many of us who made money as kids delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and shoveling snow have children who make their own money this way?)

In a Time Magazine article, “My own private India,”  Joel Stein wrote comically of the changes to his comfortably dull New York suburb of Edison, New Jersey. He discussed how the Pizza Hut of his youth is now a sweets shop (whatever that is), the A&P is an Indian grocery, and the local bijou now shows Bollywood films. He remarks, “Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.”

But his article is far more clever than a dig at immigrants, though it appears Kumar Patel, for one, did not quite get it. Stein’s childhood memories are not of a Mayberry with happy obedient children and kindhearted adults (and a goofy deputy sheriff). Rather, he recalls the kids working in the pizza parlor stealing pizza, shoppers at the grocery shoplifting, sneaking into R movies at the theater, and cashiers stealing cash. This is not Opie Taylor’s America. And does it need mentioning that “Joel Stein” is not a name from Mayberry either?

His contrast is to a present Edison with far better restaurants, a revitalized economy, and quickly assimilating children. He writes, “… if you look at the current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J.P. Stevens, which would be very creepy of you, you’ll see that, while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians.” The article is intentionally ironic – Joel Stein laments the disappearance of an “American” town populated with Italian-American hoodlums. His point his clear. His Edison was not the Menlo Park of Thomas Edison and the current Edison is not his Edison of Pizza Hut and A&P. More subtly, the reader is left doubting that the bygone Edison of Pizza Huts, A&P’s, and greasers was really that appealing anyway?

Joel Stein is grappling with the feelings many Americans share. We love the cheap burritos, the affordable groceries, and not having to mow our own lawns, but we really are not that keen with having a Lower East Side in Davenport and with having to pray that our immigrant barber understands the word “taper.” This is the American immigration conundrum.  Posted July 11, 2001.



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