Good immigrant, bad immigrant

I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book that I first read when it was published a little more than a decade ago: As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, by Laurence Bergreen. As anyone who enjoys popular music knows, Irving Berlin was one of the most extraordinary composers on the popular music scene, able to convey through simple melodies and clever, vernacular lyrics, a huge range of emotions. Listen to the song below, sung by Mr. Berlin himself, and enjoy such lyrics as

Some day, I’m going to murder the bugler,
Some day, they’re going to find him dead,
I’ll amputate his reveille,
And step upon it heavily,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.

What most people also know about Irving Berlin is that he was an immigrant. He arrived in the United States in 1893, as part of one of the largest mass immigration movements the US has seen. As Bergreen says, “At the time of the Rhynland’s arrival [Berlin’s ship], immigrants were pouring into New York at the rate of thousands a day, and the immigrant authorities were struggling to process them all.” (p. 4.) People came from everywhere: Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Ireland, with the largest group being the Russian (and Polish) Jews escaping the deadly pogroms that presaged the Holocaust. When they arrived, they spread out over the United States. (Golda Meir, for example, started in Milwaukee, Wisconson and ended up in Denver, Colorado, before her historic immigration to Palestine.)

The vast majority of new immigrants, however, ended up in New York’s Lower East Side. Census figures for this time indicate that the Lower East Side had more people per square foot than Calcutta. If you find yourself in New York and want to get a sense of the overwhelmingly claustrophobic, poverty-stricken existence these immigrants experienced, check out the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which ranks as one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It’s narrow, dark hallways, minuscule apartments (that housed as many as ten people), and almost non-existent sanitary facilities, give you a sense of what immigrants to America experienced — and this was high class living compared to where the Baline family ended up. Their apartment was located in the most squalid part of the Lower East Side, a block from the East River. These are just buildings, though. The day-to-day sufferings these immigrants experienced is best recounted in a contemporary book, Jack Riis’ 1901 classic How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to live that way and, in modern America, no one does.

Despite the horrors of the tenements, Bergreen describes Berlin as being peculiarly cheerful about his slum childhood:

“Everyone should have a Lower East Side in their lives,” he was fond of saying in years to come, when success had dulled the sharper edges of his memories of the neighborhood. Still, he was sincere. [snip] “You never miss luxury until you’ve had it,” he said. “I never felt poverty because I’d never known anything else. I was a boy with poor parents, but let’s be realistic about it: I didn’t starve; I wasn’t cold or hungry. There was always bread and butter and hot tea.” (p. 8.)

This sunny outlook persisted despite the fact that, at 13, after his father died, he left home to live on his own so as not to be a financial burden to the family. This was no sunny, Huck Finn, picaresque adventure. As Bergreen writes:

He was now a foot soldier in the city’s ragged army of immigrants. Along the Bowery and nearby side streets an entire subindustry of loding houses had sprung up to shelter the thousands of homeless boys choking the Lower East Side streets. They were not settlement houses or charitable institutions: rather, they were Dickensian in their meanness, filth, and insensitivity to ordinary human needs. They were, in effect, warehouses for unwanted human beings. [snip] Fifteen cents bought Izzy a night’s stay; a set of filthy yellow sheets cost twenty-five cents extra. The bed on which he slept often crawled with lice. (p. 15.)

(You can get a sense of this existence if you read Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, an absolutely wonderful historic document and quite an uplifting read on its own terms — and that’s despite the wooden, often unintentionally funny prose.)

Bergreen doesn’t limit this almost bizarrely sunny outlook to Berlin alone. Although many immigrants, especially the elderly, were simply swallowed up in the maw of New York’s slum communities, and all immigrants suffered what we would consider unendurable work and living conditions, to most of them it was still a step up from where they’d been before:

Izzy’s [Irving’s] acceptance of the harsh living conditions in the New World was echoed by many of his neighbors, for as bad as things were on Cherry Street, the situation had been far more desperate in Russia, especially for Jews. On March 1, 1881, seven years before Izzy was born, revolutionary terrorists assassinated Czar Alexander II. Under his reign Jews had managed to eke out a precarious existence in Russia, but restrictions crippled their lives.


After the assassination the new czar, Alexander III, abolished even the limited freedoms granted to Jews. His aggressive brand of anti-Semitism gave rise to a wave of pogroms throughout the Pale. Inflamed by fantastic tales of evil Jewish rites, government agents destroyed and burned Jewish settlements, eventually driving much of their population beyond the borders of Russia. (p. 9.)

In other words, a dirty, crowded, disease-ridden community is pretty darn good when one is safe from the government and the neighbors. Despite the horrific living conditions, the immigrants felt that America was good. This feeling was reflected in the fierce patriotism they felt and in their intense desire to assimilate. They never forgot at home that they were Russian Jews, or Irish and Italian Catholics, or German Lutherans but, first and foremost, they were Americans. Irving Berlin exemplified these strong feelings the immigrants of yore had for their new home. Writing about the (mostly forgettable) patriotic songs Irving Berlin started cranking out as America hovered on the brink of WWI, Bergreen has this to say:

It would seem that Berlin’s patriotism was merely a commercial ploy to sell songs, but, in fact, it was only now that he began to see himself as more of an American than an immigrant. His patriotism was a genuine belief, one of the few he ever held outside the values of Tin Pan Alley. His first marriage had failed him [his wife died five months after their honeymoon], his homeland had destroyed his family, his parents had provided little comfort; in his exceedingly uncertain world, the United States offered a sanctuary and made him rich. In comparison with foreign governments, it was incredibly benign, especially in its attitude toward Jews and other immigrants. These values made a genuine impression on him, and he took them as seriously as he did the copyright laws that permitted him to grow rich. (p. 128.)

This attitude was not limited to Irving Berlin. Indeed, I think it has a lot to do with the hyper-patriotism Hollywood showed during the war. While the writers may have been Communist sympathizers who leapt at the opportunity WWII offered to churn out Communist claptrap, the studio bosses were straightforward in the patriotism. They churned out dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of movies lauding the war effort and encouraging ordinary Americans to get involved, whether in the military or on the home front. And think who these studio bosses were: Louie B. Mayer, of MGM, born in Minsk; the Warner Brothers, born in Belarus; and Adolph Zukor, of Paramount, born in Hungary. All saw America as a golden, promised land, an image they vigorously promoted in their movies.

In other words, it’s not just the misty distance of time that makes these people look like “good immigrants.” That is, their place as part of American history isn’t established simply because they’re dead and can do no harm. Instead, these were people who viewed America with tremendous gratitude, and throughout their careers did everything in their power to assimilate themselves to American values and to advance American goals.

I think these immigrants stand in stark contrast to the immigration ethos that now exists. I’m sure that there are millions among the rank and file immigrants who want to take advantage of America’s myriad benefits, in the process, to become real Americans. However, today’s immigration leadership, whether it comes from liberals at home or the immigrants themselves, sings a different song. As the failed immigration reform last year showed, the loudest immigrant voices today do not speak of a yearning to assimilate and do not hope for America’s well-being. They want America’s benefits to fall into their laps, without their having to make the effort to ally themselves with American values or goals. This picture of a flag that Hispanic students at Southern California high schools hoisted pretty much tells the tail:

These high school students didn’t spring up in a vacuum. They are the product of what they are taught, and they are taught to revile America by their and our community leaders. A hundred years ago, immigrants understood that America was the land of opportunity because, if you worked hard and embraced American values you or, at least, your children, could succeed.  Instead, the shrieking voices of immigration leadership (and I exempt many in the rank and file from this charge) understand America as a land of opportunity because you can arrive, claim benefits, demand that you and your children be taught and treated as if you were still in Mexico, and that’s the end of it.

Sadly, what this new generation of immigrants doesn’t realize is that their leaders’ approach is a zero sum game. While the old attitude allowed people to hang onto their culture at home, but to leap into the mainstream outside of their home and thrive (or, at least, let their children thrive), the new attitude is a recipe for perpetual social isolation, poverty, and racial hatred. As long as they don’t jump into American culture, current Americans will not regard them as nascent Americans, and that holds true even if they are hard workers. Instead, they will be viewed as alien parasites, coming to America to drain its resources, without adding their vigor and identity to the great American tapestry. They also will never be able to tap America’s economic potential, because their insistence on rejecting broader American culture also ensures that they will be barred from greater economic opportunities.

All of this means that, until the new immigrants make “God Bless America” part of their mental furniture, they will never be Americans, nor will their children, and we will be right to regard them with suspicion, as a perpetual Fifth Column on American soil: