Borderlands And Immigrants
The United States has returned to its
recurring debate over immigration. This edition of the debate, focused intensely
on the question of illegal immigration from Mexico, is
phrased in a very traditional way. One side argues that illegal migration from
Mexico threatens both American
economic interests and security. The other side argues that the
States historically has thrived on immigration,
and that this wave of migration is no different.
As is frequently the
case, the policy debate fails to take fundamental geopolitical realities into
To begin with, it is absolutely true that the
States has always been an immigrant society.
Even the first settlers in the United States -- the American Indian
tribes -- were migrants. Certainly, since the first settlements were
established, successive waves of immigration have both driven the American
economy and terrified those who were already living in the country. When the
Scots-Irish began arriving in the late 1700s, the English settlers of all social
classes thought that their arrival would place enormous pressure on existing
economic processes, as well as bring crime and immorality to the
The Scots-Irish were
dramatically different culturally, and their arrival certainly generated stress.
However, they proved crucial for populating the continent west of the
Alleghenies. The Scots-Irish solved a demographic problem that was at the core
of the United
States: Given its population at that time,
there simply were not enough Americans to expand settlements west of the
mountains -- and this posed a security threat. If the U.S. population
remained clustered in a long, thin line along the Atlantic sea board, with poor
lines of communication running north-south, the country would be vulnerable to
European, and especially British, attack. The United States
had to expand westward, and it lacked the population to do so. The Americans
needed the Scots-Irish.
Successive waves of immigrants came to the
States over the next 200 years. In each case,
they came looking for economic opportunity. In each case, there was massive
anxiety that the arrival of these migrants would crowd the job market, driving
down wages, and that the heterogeneous cultures would create massive social
stress. The Irish immigration of the 1840s, the migrations from eastern and
southern Europe in the 1880s -- all triggered
the same concerns. Nevertheless, without those waves of immigration, the
States would not have been able to populate the
continent, to industrialize or to field the mass armies of the 20th century that
established the nation as a global power.
Population Density and Economic
Logic would have it that immigration should undermine
the economic well-being of those who already live in the United States.
But this logic assumes that there is a zero-sum game. That may be true in Europe
or Asia. It has not been true in the
States. The key is population density: The
density of the United States,
excluding Alaska, is 34 people per square kilometer. By
comparison, the population density in the United
Kingdom is 247 per square kilometer, 231 in
Germany and 337 in
Japan. The European Union, taken as a
whole, has a population density of 115. If the United States were to equal the
Kingdom in terms of density, it would have a
population of about 2 billion people.
Even accepting the premise that
some parts of the United
States are uninhabitable and that the United Kingdom is over-inhabited, the point is
that the United
States' population is still small relative to
available land. That means that it has not come even close to diminishing
economic returns. To the extent to which the population-to-land ratio determines
productivity -- and this, in our view, is the critical variable -- the
States still can utilize population increases.
At a time when population growth from native births is quite low, this means
that the United
States still can metabolize immigrants. It is,
therefore, no accident that over the past 40 years, the United States
has absorbed a massive influx of Asian immigrants who have been net producers
over time. It's a big country, and much of it is barely inhabited.
this level, the immigration issue poses no significant questions. It is a replay
of a debate that has been ongoing since the founding of the country. Those who
have predicted social and economic disaster as a result of immigration have been
consistently wrong. Those who have predicted growing prosperity have been right.
Those who have said that the national character of the United States
would change dramatically have been somewhat right; core values have remained in
place, but the Anglo-Protestant ethnicity represented at the founding has
certainly been transformed. How one feels about this transformation depends on
ideology and taste. But the simple fact is this: The United States not only
would not have become a trans-continental power without immigration; it would
not have industrialized. Masses of immigrants formed the armies of workers that
drove industrialism and made the United States into a significant
world power. No immigration, no United States.
Geography: The Difference With Mexico
would seem at first glance that the current surge of Mexican migration should be
understood in this context and, as such, simply welcomed. If immigration is
good, then why wouldn't immigration from Mexico be good?
Certainly, there is no cultural argument against it; if the United States
could assimilate Ukrainian Jews, Sicilians and Pakistanis, there is no
self-evident reason why it could not absorb Mexicans. The argument against the
Mexican migration would seem on its face to be simply a repeat of old, failed
arguments against past migrations.
But Mexican migration should not be
viewed in the same way as other migrations. When a Ukrainian Jew or a Sicilian
or an Indian came to the United States, their arrival represented a sharp
geographical event; whatever memories they might have of their birthplace,
whatever cultural values they might bring with them, the geographical milieu was
being abandoned. And with that, so were the geopolitical consequences of their
migration. Sicilians might remember Sicily,
they might harbor a cultural commitment to its values and they might even have a
sense of residual loyalty to Sicily or to
Italy -- but
Italy was thousands of miles away.
The Italian government could neither control nor exploit the migrant's presence
in the United
States. Simply put, these immigrants did not
represent a geopolitical threat; even if they did not assimilate to American
culture -- remaining huddled together in their "little Italys" -- they did not threaten the
States in any way. Their strength was in the
country they had left, and that country was far away. That is why, in the end,
these immigrants assimilated, or their children did. Without assimilation, they
The Mexican situation is different. When a
Mexican comes to the United
States, there is frequently no geographical
split. There is geographical continuity. His roots are just across the land
border. Therefore, the entire immigration dynamic shifts. An Italian, a Jew, an
Indian can return to his home country, but only with great effort and
disruption. A Mexican can and does return with considerable ease. He can, if he
chooses, live his life in a perpetual ambiguity.
The Borderland Battleground
nothing to do with Mexicans as a people, but rather with a geographical concept
called "borderlands." Traveling through Europe,
one will find many borderlands. Alsace-Lorraine is a borderland between
France; the inhabitants are both
French and German, and in some ways neither. It also is possible to find
Hungarians -- living Hungarian lives -- deep inside Slovakia and Romania.
Borderlands can be found throughout the world. They are the places where
the borders have shifted, leaving members of one nation stranded on the other
side of the frontier. In many cases, these people now hold the citizenship of
the countries in which they reside (according to recognized borders), but they
think and speak in the language on the other side of the border. The border
moved, but their homes didn't. There has been no decisive geographical event;
they have not left their homeland. Only the legal abstraction of a border, and
the non-abstract presence of a conquering army, has changed their reality.
Borderlands sometimes are political flashpoints, when the relative power
of the two countries is shifting and one is reclaiming its old territory, as
Germany did in 1940, or
France in 1918. Sometimes the regions
are quiet; the borders that have been imposed remain inviolable, due to the
continued power of the conqueror. Sometimes, populations move back and forth in
the borderland, as politics and economics shift. Borderlands are everywhere.
They are the archaeological remains of history, except that these remains have a
tendency to come back to life.
The U.S.-Mexican frontier is a borderland.
States, to all intents and purposes, conquered
the region in the period between the Texan revolution (1835-36) and the
Mexican-American war (1846-48). As a result of the war, the border moved and
areas that had been Mexican territory became part of the United States.
There was little ethnic cleansing. American citizens settled into the territory
in increasing numbers over time, but the extant Mexican culture remained in
place. The border was a political dividing line but was never a physical
division; the area north of the border retained a certain Mexican presence,
while the area south of the border became heavily influenced by American
culture. The economic patterns that tied the area north of the Rio Grande to the area
south of it did not disappear. At times they atrophied; at times they
intensified; but the links were always there, and neither Washington nor Mexico City objected. It was the natural
characteristic of the borderland.
It was not inevitable that the
borderland would be held by the United States. Anyone looking at
North America in 1800 might have bet that Mexico, not the United States,
would be the dominant power of the continent. Why that didn't turn out to be the
case is a long story, but by 1846, the Mexicans had lost direct control of the
borderland. They have not regained it since. But that does not mean that the
borderland is unambiguously American -- and it does not mean that, over the next
couple of hundred years, should Washington's power weaken and Mexico City's
increase, the borders might not shift once again. How many times, after all,
have the Franco-German borders shifted? For the moment, however, Washington is enormously more powerful than Mexico City, so the
borders will stay where they are.
Heart of the Matter
We are in a period, as happens with
borderlands, when major population shifts are under way. This should not be
understood as immigration. Or more precisely, these shifts should not be
understood as immigration in the same sense that we talk about immigration from,
say, Brazil, where the geographical
relationship between migrant and home country is ruptured. The immigration from
Mexico to the
States is a regional migration within a
borderland between two powers -- powers that have drawn a border based on
military and political history, and in which two very different populations
intermingle. Right now, the United
States is economically dynamic relative to
Mexico. Therefore, Mexicans tend to
migrate northward, across the political border, within the geographical
definition of the borderland. The map declares a border. Culture and history,
however, take a different view.
The immigration debate in the U.S.
Congress, which conflates Asian immigrations with Mexican immigrations, is
mixing apples and oranges. Chinese immigration is part of the process of
populating the United
States -- a process that has been occurring
since the founding of the Republic. Mexican immigration is, to borrow a term
from physics, the Brownian motion of the borderland. This process is nearly as
old as the Republic, but there is a crucial difference: It is not about
populating the continent nearly as much as it is about the dynamics of the
One way to lose control of a borderland is by losing control
of its population. In general, most Mexicans cross the border for strictly
economic reasons. Some wish to settle in the United States,
some wish to assimilate. Others intend to be here temporarily. Some intend to
cross the border for economic reasons -- to work -- and remain Mexicans in the
full sense of the word. Now, so long as this migration remains economic and
cultural, there is little concern for the United States.
But when this last class of migrants crosses the border with political
aspirations, such as the recovery of lost Mexican territories from the
States, that is the danger
Americans went to Texas in the 1820s. They entered the
borderland. They then decided to make a political claim against
Mexico, demanding a
redefinition of the formal borders between Mexico and the United States.
In other words, they came to make money and stayed to make a revolution. There
is little evidence -- flag-waving notwithstanding -- that there is any practical
move afoot now to reverse the American conquest of Mexican territories.
Nevertheless, that is the danger with all borderlands: that those on the "wrong"
side of the border will take action to move the border back.
States, this makes the question of Mexican
immigration within the borderland different from that of Mexican immigration to
places well removed from it. In fact, it makes the issue of Mexican migration
different from all other immigrations to the United States.
The current congressional debate is about "immigration" as a whole, but that
makes little sense. It needs to be about three different questions:
Treating these three issues as if they were the same thing confuses matters. The issue is not
immigration in general, nor even Mexican immigration. It is about the borderland
and its future. The question of legal and illegal immigration and various
solutions to the problems must be addressed in this
- Immigration from other parts of the world to the United States
- Immigration from Mexico to areas well removed from the southern border region
- Immigration from Mexico to areas within the borderlands that were created by the U.S. conquests.
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