The Dartmouth Observer
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Is A Little Knowledge A Bad Thing? Stratfor Shoots Itself in the Foot
This is a reprint of the Stratfor: Geopolitical Intelligence Report - April 4, 2006. I criticize the article below. Whereas it does a good job of proving that immigration is a net good for America, it gets worse as it goes along.
Borderlands and Immigrants
By George Friedman
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 United 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 account.
To begin with, it is absolutely true that the United 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 United 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 United 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
Population Density and Economic Returns
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 United 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 United 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 United 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.
On 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
Geography: The Difference With Mexico
Now, it 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
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
United 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 were adrift.
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
This has 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 Germany and 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
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. The United 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.
The 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 United 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
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 United States, that is the danger point.
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.
For the United 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
1. Immigration from other parts of the world to the United States
2. Immigration from Mexico to areas well removed from the southern
3. Immigration from Mexico to areas within the borderlands that were
created by the U.S. conquests
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 context.
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