Of Dumplings and Borders

As the Republican candidates fall all over themselves to see who can be the most hostile toward immigrants, I want to express a New Year's appreciation to those newcomers who have managed to slip across our borders to make our country a better place.

My warm feelings toward our new arrivals -- always present to some degree, since like most Americans I come from immigrant stock -- got a ginger and soy sauce-induced boost on New Year's Eve, when my wife and I invited our extended families over to welcome in 2008 around our dining room table. In preparing for the New Year's celebration, we took a moment to consider what would be the most festive take-out choice in our hometown of New York City -- and promptly headed to Chinatown.

We started our shopping at the bustling Deluxe Food Market on Mott St. where we picked up several bags of frozen Shanghai soup dumplings, then walked southeast a few blocks to Great New York Noodletown for pounds of gleaming roast duck and pork, then after a few plates of restorative dim sum at Jing Fong on Elizabeth St. walked away with some aromatic take-away cartons of garlicky sautéed baby bok choy. We hauled the bags home and arrayed their contents on platters that were promptly emptied by a ravenous band of siblings, kids, uncles and aunts.

Because of the constant arrival of new immigrants, New York City -- like so many places in America -- is a beautifully diverse place. New Yorkers experience the benefits of this diversity most directly through our stomachs. When I take a lunch break in my neighborhood, I can walk a block or two and find Peruvian roast chicken, Mexican tacos, Middle Eastern falafel, Japanese yakitori, Dominican rice and beans, and some of the best bagels on earth. With the mix of populations now in the neighborhood, some of these places are even diversifying within themselves -- the greengrocer now sells fresh corn tortillas across the aisle from the Korean kimchi, and for a while a big sign in the window of Lenny's Bagels said "try our fajitas!" Then there are the Cuban-Chinese and Peruvian-Chinese places, products of complicated immigration routes several decades back.

Our neighborhood also sports Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, McDonalds and Subway outlets, but why would we want to buy food from these outsiders when we can get much more delicious offerings made with love by neighbors who have come here from around the world? Who are the intruders really, the Mexican immigrant lady on the corner (quite likely undocumented) with the shopping cart full of hand-made tamales or the corporate chain restaurant that offers soulless mediocrity?

The benefits of immigration extend beyond food, of course. My daughters go to school with kids from an astonishing array of places. Their closest friends are from families originally from Egypt, Argentina, and Germany, and their classes at school often resemble the United Nations (though they're probably somewhat better behaved). When my older daughter had an international fair in her class, the kids were genuinely international, and the lessons made sense in a way that they never did in the monochrome suburb where I grew up. Talk about preparing kids for a global world.

At various times in our history, our country has turned against its newcomers. Irish, Italians and Jews were the target of violent bigotry a century or so ago, and Chinese were excluded from immigrating at all. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were locked up in prison camps, and in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001 Muslims were rounded up, imprisoned, and deported. In recent years Haitians and other Caribbean exiles have been turned away or imprisoned if they were lucky enough to survive the journey here. Nearly every ethnic group that has come to be a part of our country was originally met with hostility. And in this election season, people from south of the border face the ire of frightened Americans and the politicians who benefit from their ignorance and anxiety.

Wake up and smell the tamales! Our lives are hugely improved by the presence of immigrants, whatever their legal status. Our current immigration debate stubbornly distinguishes between those who are here legally and those who are illegal, as if there is some moral difference between desperate immigrants based on the quality of their paperwork. The presence of people in our country who want to work, who hope to partake of what is good here, and who share their cultural wonders with us (including their cuisine, of course) is cause for celebration. Happy New Year, welcome to America, and thanks for the dumplings!

Peter Miller's latest documentary, SACCO AND VANZETTI, is now out on DVD.