Communities v. Interest Groups

The furor over illegal immigration is reaching hurricane proportions here on our East Coast. The ACLU’s courtroom challenge of Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s illegal-immigrant ordinance concluded last week with the federal judge wondering out loud about “due process of law” issues. Meanwhile, in New Jersey two radio shock-jocks, known as the “Jersey Guys,” riled Hispanics with their “La Cuca Gotcha” campaign to collar illegal immigrants.
Hazleton’s mayor testified at trial that the ordinance is aimed at preserving community. He pointed to increased crime, which he correlates with an influx of undocumented immigrants. The law is aimed at penalizing employers and landlords who deal with these folks.
A sense of community has always been a pretty big deal in the hard-coal towns of central-eastern Pennsylvania. I know. I was born in Hazleton and grew up in nearby Jim Thorpe. During the Fifties and Sixties, when I was a kid, the coal mines mostly all closed. The railroads too went bust. Half the residents of many mine-patch towns moved to Philly, New York, New Jersey and beyond in search of work. For those who hung on “community” was a really big deal. Community and family are what got us through those hardscrabble times.
In our 21st century country of teeming megalopolises and suburban sprawl, for many Americans interest groups have replaced communities. Talk of Internet communities is nonsense. Chat rooms facilitate shared interests. They don’t create communities. A community has a geographic presence or it’s something other than a community. Ironically, I’m betting, illegal immigrants often actually establish real communities in this country. We native-born Yanks have a harder time maintaining our communities. Our propensity for putting career ahead of family and community leads not only to high mobility but, increasingly, to two-career marriages being conducted at long-distance. To my old fashioned mind these aren’t marriages at all. Yet in my experience such accommodations are becoming more and more common, both among young adults and middle-aged empty nesters.
That immigrants, legal and illegal, cohere in tight-knit communities should be no surprise. From the Irish, Italian and East European coal miners of the 19th and early 20th century mine patches to the many immigrant enclaves of Manhattan today, shared language and customs, plus solidarity in the face of nativist hostility, have forged these immigrant islands.
Prosperity is the culprit that conspired to carve up such communities. As towns and small cities in Central-Eastern Pennsylvania — Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, and Bethlehem, as well as Hazleton — recovered some semblance of prosperity, they attracted newcomers. With population growth came increased crime. Whether illegal residents account for a disproportionate piece of that statistic or not — an issue in contention at the trial — they presented a starting point for police and politicians seeking to save a precious sense of community. If community is their genuine motive, they are to be commended.
By contrast, the “Jersey Guys” strike me as a pair of irresponsible bigmouths. They’ve gotten their 15 minutes of national fame for their flamboyant flapping. When the present furor dies away, they’ll offend somebody else to maintain their ratings. If they’re fired, another station will snap them up. Like professional athletes, who migrate from franchise to franchise as free agents, these two guys have no genuine interest in any community, whether populated by legal or illegal residents. Like Internet chat rooms, their shock-jock talk-radio is just so much electro-magnetic static. Try to build a community on this ethereal blather and you will inherit the wind.
Hazleton’s ordinance may be crushed in federal court. Absent Congressional action, no local initiative is likely to staunch the cross-borders tidal wave that seems to be swamping communities such as Hazleton. The federal judge may condemn Hazleton’s ordinance to the dustbin of history. I can’t bring myself to condemn the sentiment behind it.


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