What Jury Duty Taught Me About Immigration

In Queens, people from all over the world engage in an American pastime: weaseling your way out of jury duty.

This week, I spent a day on jury duty at the Civil Court in Jamaica, Queens. I didn't get picked for a jury, but I did see what an American civic institution looks like in the most diverse county in the U.S.

Queens is full of immigrants: 1.1 million immigrants live there, just under half the borough's population, and they came from all over: 48 percent from Latin America, 37 percent from Asia, 13 percent from Europe and 2 percent from Africa. More than 100 languages are spoken there. So the crowd in the Central Jury Room in Jamaica on Tuesday was much more diverse than you would see in most courthouses, if equally grumpy.

The morning started with an announcement that prospective jurors who thought they had reason to be excused should speak with a juror representative. About a quarter of the jury pool tried. When I tweeted about this, my colleague Betsey Stevenson noted that she saw a strong racial divide on jury duty in Philadelphia; only whites tried to get out. But the lineup I saw reflected the diversity of the jury pool.

Perhaps this is because Queens, unlike many urban jurisdictions, has a reasonable degree of income equality across racial and ethnic groups. The Census Bureau estimates the borough's median income around $61,000 for white, non-Hispanic households in 2011. That compares with $55,000 for blacks, $52,000 for Asians and $47,000 for Hispanics. It's not surprising that Queens residents would be about equally likely to see themselves as too busy or important for jury duty.

I got called into voir dire for one case with 19 other prospective jurors; the attorneys filled the jury before questioning me. The professions and attitudes of the 13 who were interviewed reflected the middle-class nature of Queens. Three were accountants: one white, one black, one Hispanic. One managed a medical office, one ran a preschool, one was a stay-at-home mom, one was unemployed. (She said she had been a hostess at IHOP, but the IHOP burned down.) Another said that, as an engineer, she was too quantitatively focused to be able to make an "arbitrary" judgment about a pain-and-suffering award. Arguably, trying to weasel your way out of jury duty is an even better sign of "Americanness" than being keen to serve.

The litigants -- the case stemmed from an auto accident -- were both Asian. One question posed to potential jurors was whether anyone minded that the plaintiff would testify through a Korean-language interpreter; no one did. The plaintiff's attorney assured us that his client does speak some English, which makes sense. In Queens, you need to learn English not just to communicate with native-born Americans, but also with your Ecuadorean and Indian and Caribbean-born neighbors.

It's often stated that immigrants must either assimilate to American culture or be ghettoized. In Queens, immigrants have built communities that are distinct and diverse and yet uniquely American. Their borough's neighborhoods are often very integrated. The Ukranian grocery store near my home in Sunnyside stocks a wide variety of Korean, Colombian and Greek foods because that's what is necessary to serve its customers.

Eric Fisher's New York population map, which went viral a few years ago, illustrates this well. While Manhattan and Brooklyn have stark racial segregation, most of Queens jumbles together white, Asian and Hispanic populations. The integration isn't total; southeast Queens is almost uniformly black; Howard Beach, a mostly white enclave near JFK Airport, has had a history of racial strife. But on the whole, Queens provides a successful model for middle-class diversity and integration with a huge immigrant population.

An immigration policy that makes it easier for people to come from all over the world would indeed change America, perhaps making it more like Queens. As someone who also came to Queens from outside -- Massachusetts -- I expect the change would be for the better.

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