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Sunday Song Lyric:
I have not done one of these in quite a while, but after seeing Neil Diamond in concert -- and noticing the thunderous crowd response to "America" -- I started thinking about the song's unabashedly pro-immigration lyrics. "America" is a celebration of America as a land of hope and opportunity where people from other lands can come to prosper and pursue their dreams. Yet looking at recent polling numbers, it is hard to believe that a majority of Americans still share this vision. A large plurality, if not an absolute majority, of Americans believe in restricting the flow of immigration. Only a small minority believes more immigrants should be let in. I have no reason to believe the Neil Diamond concert audience was particularly unrepresentative on this score, and yet this song got a greater response than any other (with the possible exception of "Sweet Caroline"). Why? I'd suggest two non-mutually exclusive explanations.

First, it's simply a good song that people like. Musical tastes need not be political. I certainly like many artists who espouse wrong-headed political views. Second, insofar as the song is an upbeat celebration of America, it strikes a patriotic chord among folks who have not thought much about the lyrics. It sounds like an unabashedly pro-America song, and that's good enough for many listeners. (For another example of this phenomenon, see Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." -- a song that sounds particularly celebratory and patriotic only until one considers the lyrics.)

In any event, here are the lyrics.

Far
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star

Free
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

On the boats and on the planes
They're coming to America
Never looking back again
They're coming to America

Home, don't it seem so far away
Oh, we're traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we'll say our grace
Freedom's light burning warm
Freedom's light burning warm

Everywhere around the world
They're coming to America
Every time that flag's unfurled
They're coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They're coming to America
Got a dream they've come to share
They're coming to America

They're coming to America
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
Today, today, today, today, today

My country 'tis of thee (Today)
Sweet land of liberty (Today)
Of thee I sing (Today)
Of thee I sing (Today)
Peder (mail) (www):
When most Americans hear the word 'immigration' they probably think of the illegal type. If a poll asked seperate questions about the two types, I bet you'd get a majority positive for the legals.
8.21.2005 10:35am
John M:
I certainly don't know the exact numbers, but I would guess that a significant percentage of Americans know something of their ethnic background, and can trace their ancestry back to the specific people who came to the United States. For people who had parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who immigrated here, particularly from Europe, the Neil Diamond song probably evokes memories of immigrants of the past, not the immigrants of today. My dad's grandparents were all immigrants, as were my wife's maternal grandparents. I can't speak for all of my relatives or in-laws, but it's my impression that a good number of them would fall in the "anti-immigration" category in the polls. I have heard older members of both of our families, those of the first American-born generation, claim significant differences between their parents and the immigrants of today, in terms of a willingness to assimilate, learn the language, be loyal to the United States, etc. I have no idea to what extent that is true. Certainly, modern technology and convenience of travel make it easier to stay in touch with "the old country today," and at least for todays's Hispanic immigrants, accomodation makes it possible to get by without being fluent in English. My suspicion is that the old immigrants didn't assimilate as seamlessly as is now claimed, and that the new ones aren't as Balkanized as many folks claim, but that's just a guess. Certainly, none of my ancestors stepped off the boat knowing a word of English, and while they all became proficient English speakers, it didn't happen overnight. Many of the same things that are said about today's immigrants were said of European immigrants a century ago.

Nevertheless, my point is that I have seen in my family many people who admire the sacrifice of their ancestors, but don't view today's immigrants in the same light.
8.21.2005 12:11pm
Craig Oren (mail):
wait a minute, let's not miss the real story here. You, a sentient being, went to a Neil Diamond concert????
8.21.2005 12:24pm
eratosthenes (mail) (www):
American xenophobia is unfortunately a time-honored tradition. Most people can't fathom the concept of free immigration, even though, like free trade in goods, it is the most economically rational course of action. Illegal immigrants of Hispanic descent are for the most part productive people who cross the border to (gasp) look for work. Our rigid nationality quotas (strange that many conservatives opposed to racial quotas on moral grounds nonetheless support these) and backlog make it literally impossible for Latin Americans to immigrate legally within any reasonable time. Because of their illegality, however, they are largely ineligible for the various types of largesse our government showers on U.S. citizens, so they contribute more on net (everyone pays sales tax, and cheaper labor generally lowers prices for consumers) than they take out. This is a long way of saying that the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is arbitrary as a moral matter, and largely persists because the majority of Americans simply do not like to share the opportunities they enjoy as an accident of birth with those of non-European descent. Other explanations, I'm afraid, bear the stink of scapegoat. I would like it if we were consistent and enlightened in our support of those who seek political freedom and economic opportunity (in other words, deregulate immigration), but the ugly facts simply do not bear this out.
8.21.2005 1:06pm
Jeremy (mail):
I've wondered about this very issue before related to this song.

My opinion is that the lyrics of the song support assimilation; people coming to America to be free and live in a democratic, freedom-loving society. The song celebrates democracy in an almost neo-conservative way. That's enough for me to like it.

And I despise illegal aliens, but bear no ill will towards legal immigrants.
8.21.2005 1:25pm
Jeremy (mail):
Erastothenes,

You wrote


Because of their illegality, however, they are largely ineligible for the various types of largesse our government showers on U.S. citizens, so they contribute more on net (everyone pays sales tax, and cheaper labor generally lowers prices for consumers) than they take out.


Sales tax represents a very small amount of aggregate governmental collections (local+state+federal). Further, you don't balance the cheaper-labor-lowering-prices effect against the poor-Americans-cant-get-low-income-jobs effect. In short, you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

There are roughly as many illegal aliens with jobs as there are unemployed Americans looking for jobs. A simple solution presents itself...
8.21.2005 1:29pm
eratosthenes (mail) (www):
"Sales tax represents a very small amount of aggregate governmental collections (local+state+federal). Further, you don't balance the cheaper-labor-lowering-prices effect against the poor-Americans-cant-get-low-income-jobs effect. In short, you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

There are roughly as many illegal aliens with jobs as there are unemployed Americans looking for jobs. A simple solution presents itself..."

To clarify, I do understand that, as with every economic change, deregulated immigration would create winners (the immigrants, society at large) and losers (those displaced by people willing to work for lower wages). Our current policy values the livelihood of the small group of poor, unskilled Americans who will be unemployable absent restriction from immigrant competition more highly than allowing economic forces to freely move resources and people to their most valuable uses. I disagree with that policy.

As for taxes, illegal immigrants pay some in various forms (obviously they do not pay withheld income taxes if they are being paid under the table) but collect little in return (by comparison to citizens, who are eligible for a wide variety of benefits, including most notably Medicare and Social Security), apart from perhaps publicly provided emergency medical care.
8.21.2005 2:23pm
Carol Anne:
Back to the oroginal post: Thanks for the lyrics and the context.

I wonder, in some sense, if the inherent self-selection of the audience (e.g., Oren clearly wasn't there :-) ) could have something to do with the response, too.

Could some sense of idealism in the audience inspire that kind of "thunderous crowd response?"

I also think that many people (especially on the Left) are frustrated by their assesment that the Right has elevated of their values and beliefs higher than national interests. That would, in turn, seem a basis for resonating with what is, essentially, a populist, nationalistic song.

At the same time, I agree with John M's assessment.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I see the "almost neo-conservative" linkage that Jeremy posits. I think we can have strong love of country, irrespective of political stripe. Some people, however, may disagree about the best actions to take to protect that which we most value. (As you can tell, apropos other recent VC threads, I don't agree that someone people who objects to the Iraq experience necessarily "wants to see America lose.")
8.21.2005 2:48pm
Kilroy:
You want tenure, yet you admit going to Neil Diamond concerts? Voluntarily? No wonder you blog anonymously.

(Chill out, Neil Diamond fans - that was a joke.)
8.21.2005 2:55pm
erp (mail):
This is the version that brings tears to my eyes.
8.21.2005 3:36pm
Dell Adams (mail):
"It sounds like an unabashedly pro-America song, and that's good enough for many listeners."

JNV, you imply that it is not in fact an unabashedly pro-America song. In what sense not?
8.21.2005 4:03pm
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
The response to the song shows, as the response to nearly every opinion poll shows, that the American public has a much wiser and more nuanced view of immigration than the political leaders of either party have. A moderate level of immigration is good for both immigrants and America, and the public overwhelmingly approves of moderate levels of legal immigration followed by the assimilation and Americanization of immigrants. Massive levels of immigration -- especially illegal immigration -- followed both by depression of labor markets for low-income workers and by ethnic and cultural separatism and nonassimilation, is bad for America. For understanding that simple distinction, the public is denigrated by "opinion leaders" as being prejudiced and anti-immigrant.
8.21.2005 4:32pm
Perseus (mail):
I'm also wondering about the polls. Some respondents may have missed the distinction between legal/illegal while the NBC/WSJ poll doesn't make the legal/illegal distinction at all, and it's significant that the most people in the last CBS poll think that most immigrants are illegal. The missing piece of background information that I think would be useful for the polls would be the number of legal immigrants that the US government allows each year along with an estimate of the number of illegal immigrants that enter.
8.21.2005 5:08pm
Penta:
Amusing anecdote of family...

My maternal grandmother was born in Ireland, came over in 1947, married my grandfather soon after, and became a citizen in 1953.

She holds...more-or-less anti-immigration views, I suspect.

I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case, either.

Why?

My guess...Lots of immigrants came over here and faced a decidedly nativist country. It wasn't like it is today, where the issue is illegal immigration. For most of the century, it was immigration, period.

The modern immigrant doesn't have to struggle against nearly the same factors.

They didn't have a US government (and most state and federal governments) providing translations in seemingly every language on the planet.

Even in ethnic enclaves, you couldn't live your life without speaking English, so language barriers were a real problem. Not the case anymore.

At the same time, communication, transport, etc. made immigration a far, far more permanent decision. You went to America, you were (more than likely) never going to be able to go back, period.

So there was a lot more isolation.

The modern immigrant faces virtually none of those factors.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a lot of, well...resentment.
8.21.2005 5:59pm
Craig Oren (mail):
First of all, Penta, there were many immigrants in the early century who went back, especially Italians. Second, you could get along nicely with a minimial amount of English. Of my four grandparents, only one is said to have spoken English with any competence.

But I really wrote to mention that Ben Franklin got his start in politics denouncing German immigration to Pennsylvania. He said they'd never learn to speak English, and they'd never assimilate. He even thought they had a different skin color from his. Ben had a rather difficult time explaining this later to Germans who became voters. See Edward Morgan's excellent biography of Franklin. He said exactly the same things that nativists said about my grandparents a century ago, and that are said today. As it happens, the Economist had an excellent survey of America some weeks ago, and reported that Hispanics are doing just fine at assimilating, thank you. They understand that in America you succeed by speaking English.
8.21.2005 6:47pm
markm (mail):
"There are roughly as many illegal aliens with jobs as there are unemployed Americans looking for jobs. A simple solution presents itself..."

The trouble is, most of the unemployed Americans looking for jobs fall into one of two categories:

1. They are highly skilled and looking for a good job in their specialty. Illegal (and most legal) immigrants are not competing with them at all.

2. With or without immigrant competition, they will be "looking for a job" forever, because they don't actually work when they get hired.

I see a huge difference between immigrants such as my ancestors and most of the immigrants now. Among my ancestors, the first-generation immigrants may have struggled with English and stayed in ethnic enclaves, but they ensured their children went to school, learned English, and became fully American.

Now, I see great masses of people that grew up here and yet speak broken English and seem to be more loyal to their ancestral country than to the USA. There are still some immigrants that want to assimilate, but they are invisible compared to the non-assimilating masses of Latinos, etc. It often appears that the main difference between these second and third generations and their immigrant ancestors is that the later generations have forgotten what it was that drove their ancestors out of the home country in the first place. In other words, they're often ready to vote to try to make this country into a copy of the socialist hellholes their parents fled...
8.21.2005 7:14pm
Craig Oren (mail):
The Economist's July 14 issue had a long piece on America with a portion on immigrants. Perhaps the key point is that over 90% of second-generation Hispanics (i.e. the children of immigrants) are either bilingual or mainly English-speaking, with about an equal split among these groups. In the third generation,more than 3/4s are mainly English-speaking. Young Latinos watch twice as much English-language as Spanish language TV. While Mexican immigrant men have six fewer years of full-time education than their white American-born peers, the sons of immigrants have only a year less education.

Intermarriage between Hispanics and natives is increasing, with 14% of California and Nevada marriages involving a Hispanic and a non-Hispanic. Almost a third of all marriages involving a Hispanic or Asian partner cross racial lines. Nearly half of the inter-racial marriages in this country have a Hispanic partner.

Sounds like the Hispanics are not that different from other groups in their assimilation patterns. Moreover, Hispanic immigrants, reports the Economist, have contributed to economic growth around the nation.
8.21.2005 10:05pm
Jeremy (mail):
Eratosthenes,

I appreciate your respectful reply, but you are living in a pure dream world. You wrote:

As for taxes, illegal immigrants pay some in various forms (obviously they do not pay withheld income taxes if they are being paid under the table) but collect little in return (by comparison to citizens, who are eligible for a wide variety of benefits, including most notably Medicare and Social Security), apart from perhaps publicly provided emergency medical care.

Do illegal aliens have police protection? Fire protection? Do they drive on roads? Walk on sidewalks? Put their children in schools? Attend school themselves? Can they watch PBS on television? Are U.S. soldiers not defending them? Do they eat food inspected and regulated by the government? Do they drive cars manufactured according to government safety regulations? Can they avail themselves of the civil courts and sue those who damage them? You concede that they receive some medical care, but seem to think that's minimal; do you have any idea how much money goes to emergency medical care for illegal aliens?

All of these things are paid for, in whole or in part, by tax collections. To say that illegal aliens receive little to no benefit from tax collections in America is to have absolutely no understanding of what your tax dollars actually pay for.

You take for granted that society-as-a-whole benefits from completely de-regulated immigration but fail to adduce any evidence to support that proposition. I would suggest that if America opened its borders, we would be overwhelmed with an influx of foreigners looking for all kinds of jobs, including high-paying professional ones, and would be happy to undercut many Americans. The social safety nets we have established would break, with tens or hundreds of millions of American citizens out of work. Our country would become balkanized, with a Spanish-speaking subculture taking over the southwestern states pretty quickly.

A country wishing to retain its culture and national identity cannot allow immigration to outstrip its ability to assimilate new immigrants. Otherwise, subculture ghettos tend to form and in some (many?) cases threaten the main national culture. Just look at the threat posed to the Dutch by islamist immigrants.

Erastothenes, you place great emphasis on economic arguments. If Americans are rational actors, why don't we vote for open-border policies, if you are correct? Some things are more important than cheap t-shirts, and one of those things is our American culture.
8.21.2005 10:52pm
SteveH (mail):
PBS showed Neil performing in Ireland. He opened with America and people went nuts. I doubt that their passion for the song was motivated by some pro-American fervor (although they clearly weren't a crowd of America haters), so I suspect that your answer is hypothesis 1: it is just a really, really catchy song. And, as I know from experience, a big hit at karaoke bars.
8.23.2005 2:15am
WB:
I beg to differ. I agree with the sentiments in it, but despise the song. Neil Diamond is just annoying and needs to be deported to make room for immigrants. The sound is so bad that it makes me literally angry when I hear it.

As far as the actual message, I don't understand why people in a nation of immigrants feel that they have the moral entitlement to pull up the ladder behind them and deny immigrants the opportunity that they have.
8.23.2005 11:29am
Mark F (mail):
This is the most spurious logic I've ever heard. The argument can be summed up like this: "Since gay people think that everyone has the right to have a relationship (sexual or otherwise) with whomever they wish, they must be actively 'recruiting' straight people." Hogwash. Consider this counter-example: Just because I think that everyone has a right to choose whatever religion they wish, does not mean that I am converting people to my religion--quite the contrary.

To "recruit" anyone to do anything is to advocate that it is the single correct way. You're supposedly a smart guy, but this logic wouldn't hold up in a seventh grade classroom.
8.23.2005 7:06pm