Years ago, I created a radio documentary about my grandparents coming to America. For
months, I sat at kitchen tables holding microphones in front of elderly relatives, and asked
them to tell me their stories. Later, back in Chapel Hill, N.C., where I was in graduate school, I listened through hours of thick Russian accents and transcribed it all.
One of my favorite stories was a short one. Tante Leah — my Zadee’s sister — had just arrived at Ellis Island, and Zadee was escorting her back to Shenandoah, Pa. by train. My grandfather had settled in the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania, where he could sell goods to the miners.
As Leah told it, the train passed by Paterson, and her brother pointed out the window —
imparting one of his first lessons to her.
“Silk factory,” Zadee said. And you have to fill in the thick accent here. “Silk good. Factory no good.”
Except for my father, all the people I interviewed for that documentary are gone. I don’t think my children ever heard those accents. The closest they came were the voices of Boris and Minka, who appeared in a Passover episode of Rugrats. It is very easy, in the space of a few generations, to completely forget that you came from people who spoke an entirely different language, left their parents forever, and made their way in a strange land as “greenies.”
When you think about immigration in America these days, you largely think of Texas and
California, of border fences rising out the desert, of starving and dehydrated Mexicans being smuggled into the country in the back of trucks. At least I do.
You don’t necessarily think of New Jersey. But according to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, New Jersey ranks fifth in the country for the number of foreign-born residents and third for the percentage of foreign-born residents.
A few weeks ago, inspired by the 86-journalist collaboration by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, we put out a call to action to do a collaborative reporting project in New Jersey. Last Monday, 10 of us gathered for a brown-bag lunch in Schmitt Hall, on the campus of Montclair State University, and decided on immigration as our subject.
We agreed on what has become obvious to me after six months of compiling a daily news
curation of New Jersey: immigration is an undercovered topic in New Jersey journalism.
The members of our collaboration come from a variety of news organizations, big and small: WBGO, NJ.com, The Jersey Journal, NJTV, Glocally Newark, Survey USA. We are particularly lucky to have Sylvia Jauregui, founder and owner of Elizabeth Inside Out, who is not only bilingual and an immigrant, being originally from Ecuador, but whose beat is a city that is 59 percent of Latino heritage and 46 percent foreign born.
We went around the table, and made assignments based on our skill sets and our geography. Among other things, we will be looking at immigrant labor being used to rebuild the shore post-Sandy, new African populations in Newark, the Elizabeth Detention Center, how immigrants fare in higher education and the symbolic role of Ellis Island.
Though we are all journalists, we are in many ways making this up as we go along. How do we run a decentralized newsroom? Who edits the stories? Do we need special libel insurance?
This much we have decided: Our intention is to publish everything we create under a Creative Commons license, to make it available to all news sites in the state, and to publish it as an ongoing series — using a logo to brand our output over time.
We’re doing this — so far, at least — without any special funds. For now, everybody involved is taking on these assignments pro bono, and squeezing them into their already busy reporting lives.
I haven’t thought a lot about immigration in the 30 years since I did the radio documentary about my grandparents. I suspect that of our reporting group, except for Sylvia, few of us have. I expect that over the next year, my consciousness will be raised: That I’ll have a new appreciation of the people who clean my house, the crews that cut lawns up and down my street, the cooks and waiters at some of the ethnic restaurants I frequent. And that I will understand the laws, hurdles, indignities and opportunities that immigrants encounter in the Garden State.
If we are successful, you will too.
Debbie Galant is director of the NJ News Commons, a project of the School of the
Communication and Media at Montclair State University. It resides within the Center for
Cooperative Media and is funded, in part, by contributions of the Geraldine R. Dodge
Foundation. If you are interested in supporting or joining The Immigration Project, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founders of The Immigration Project, April 8, 2013. Photo by Steve Johnson, Montclair State University
Immigrants outside Ellis Island. National Archives.