This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration went into effect last week,
albeit severely limited by a federal court ruling. The U.S. Supreme
Court undoubtedly will settle the matter, which may also trigger federal
regulations. However that turns out, the entire issue cannot simply be
seen as an internal American legal matter. More broadly, it forms part
of the relations between the United States and Mexico, two sovereign
nation-states whose internal dynamics and interests are leading them
into an era of increasing tension. Arizona and the entire immigration
issue have to be viewed in this broader context.
Until the Mexican-American War, it was not clear whether the dominant
power in North America would have its capital in Washington
City. Mexico was the older society with a substantially larger
military. The United States, having been founded east of the Appalachian
Mountains, had been a weak and vulnerable country. At its founding, it
lacked strategic depth and adequate north-south transportation routes.
The ability of one colony to support another in the event of war was
limited. More important, the United States had the most vulnerable of
economies: It was heavily dependent on maritime exports and lacked a
navy able to protect its sea-lanes against more powerful European powers
like England and Spain. The War of 1812 showed the deep weakness of the
United States. By contrast, Mexico had greater strategic depth and less
dependence on exports.
The Centrality of New Orleans
solution to this strategic weakness was to expand the United States
west of the Appalachians, first into the Northwest Territory ceded to
the United States by the United Kingdom and then into the Louisiana
Purchase, which Thomas Jefferson ordered bought from France. These two
territories gave the United States both strategic depth and a new
economic foundation. The regions could support agriculture that produced
more than the farmers could consume. Using the
Ohio-Missouri-Mississippi river system, products could be shipped south
to New Orleans. New Orleans was the farthest point south to which
flat-bottomed barges from the north could go, and the farthest inland
that oceangoing ships could travel. New Orleans became the single most
strategic point in North America. Whoever controlled it controlled the
agricultural system developing between the Appalachians and the Rockies.
During the War of 1812, the British tried to seize New Orleans, but
forces led by Andrew Jackson defeated them in a battle fought after the
war itself was completed.
Jackson understood the
importance of New Orleans to the United States. He also understood
that the main threat to New Orleans came from Mexico. The U.S.-Mexican
border then stood on the Sabine River, which divides today’s Texas from
Louisiana. It was about 200 miles from that border to New Orleans and,
at its narrowest point, a little more than 100 miles from the Sabine to
Mexico therefore represented a fundamental threat to the United
States. In response, Jackson authorized a covert operation under Sam
Houston to foment an uprising among American settlers in the Mexican
department of Texas with the aim of pushing Mexico farther west. With
its larger army, a Mexican thrust to the Mississippi was not impossible —
nor something the Mexicans would necessarily avoid, as the rising
United States threatened Mexican national security.
strategic problem was the geography south of the Rio Grande (known
in Mexico as the Rio Bravo). This territory consisted of desert and
mountains. Settling this area with large populations was impossible.
Moving through it was difficult. As a result, Texas was very lightly
settled with Mexicans, prompting Mexico initially to encourage Americans
to settle there. Once a rising was fomented among the Americans, it
took time and enormous effort to send a Mexican army into Texas. When it
arrived, it was weary from the journey and short of supplies. The
insurgents were defeated at the Alamo and Goliad, but as the Mexicans
pushed their line east toward the Mississippi, they were defeated at San
Jacinto, near present-day Houston.
The creation of an independent Texas served American interests,
relieving the threat to New Orleans and weakening Mexico. The final blow
was delivered under President James K. Polk during the Mexican-American
War, which (after the Gadsden Purchase) resulted in the modern
U.S.-Mexican border. That war severely weakened both the Mexican army
and Mexico City, which spent roughly the rest of the century stabilizing
Mexico’s original political order.
A Temporary Resolution
The U.S. defeat of Mexico settled the issue of the relative power of
Mexico and the United States but did not permanently resolve the
region’s status; that remained a matter of national power and will. The
United States had the same problem with much of the Southwest (aside
from California) that Mexico had: It was a relatively unattractive place
economically, given that so much of it was inhospitable. The region
experienced chronic labor shortages, relatively minor at first but
accelerating over time. The acquisition of relatively
low-cost labor became one of the drivers of the region’s economy,
and the nearest available labor pool was Mexico. An accelerating
population movement out of Mexico and into the territory the United
States seized from Mexico paralleled the region’s accelerating economic
The United States and Mexico both saw this as mutually beneficial.
From the American point of view, there was a perpetual shortage of
low-cost, low-end labor in the region. From the Mexican point of view,
Mexico had a population surplus that the Mexican economy could not
readily metabolize. The inclination of the United States to pull labor
north was thus matched by the inclination of Mexico to push that labor
The Mexican government built its social policy around the idea of
exporting surplus labor — and as important, using remittances from
immigrants to stabilize the Mexican economy. The U.S. government,
however, wanted an outcome that was illegal under U.S. law. At times,
the federal government made exceptions to the law. When it lacked the
political ability to change the law, the United States put limits on the
resources needed to enforce the law. The rest of the country didn’t
notice this process while the former Mexican borderlands benefited from
it economically. There were costs to the United States in this immigrant
movement, in health care, education and other areas, but business
interests saw these as minor costs while Washington saw them as costs to
be borne by the states.
Three fault lines emerged in United States on the topic. One was
between the business classes, which benefited directly from the flow of
immigrants and could shift the cost of immigration to other social
sectors, and those who did not enjoy those benefits. The second lay
between the federal government, which saw the costs as trivial, and the
states, which saw them as intensifying over time. And third, there were
tensions between Mexican-American citizens and other American citizens
over the question of illegal migrants. This inherently divisive,
potentially explosive mix intensified as the process continued.
Borderlands and the Geopolitics of Immigration
Underlying this political process was a geopolitical one. Immigration
in any country is destabilizing. Immigrants have destabilized the
United States ever since the Scots-Irish changed American culture,
taking political power and frightening prior settlers. The same
immigrants were indispensible to economic growth. Social and cultural
instability proved a low price to pay for the acquisition of new labor.
That equation ultimately also works in the case of Mexican
migrants, but there is a fundamental difference. When the Irish or
the Poles or the South Asians came to the United States, they were
physically isolated from their homelands. The Irish might have wanted
Roman Catholic schools, but in the end, they had no choice but to
assimilate into the dominant culture. The retention of cultural
hangovers did not retard basic cultural assimilation, given that they
were far from home and surrounded by other, very different, groups.
This is the case for Mexican-Americans in Chicago or Alaska, whether
citizens, permanent residents or illegal immigrants. In such locales,
they form a substantial but ultimately isolated group, surrounded by
other, larger groups and generally integrated into the society and
economy. Success requires that subsequent generations follow the path of
prior immigrants and integrate. This is not the case, however, for
Mexicans moving into the borderlands conquered by the United States just
as it is not the case in other borderlands around the world. Immigrant
populations in this region are not physically separated from their
homeland, but rather can be seen as culturally extending their homeland
northward — in this case not into alien territory, but into historically
This is no different from what takes place in borderlands
the world over. The political border moves because of war. Members
of an alien population suddenly become citizens of a new country.
Sometimes, massive waves of immigrants from the group that originally
controlled the territory politically move there, undertaking new
citizenship or refusing to do so. The cultural status of the borderland
shifts between waves of ethnic cleansing and population movement.
Politics and economics mix, sometimes peacefully and sometimes
The Mexican-American War established the political boundary between
the two countries. Economic forces on both sides of the border have
encouraged both legal and illegal immigration north into the borderland —
the area occupied by the United States. The cultural character of the
borderland is shifting as the economic and demographic process
accelerates. The political border stays where it is while the cultural
border moves northward.
The underlying fear of those opposing this process is not economic
(although it is frequently expressed that way), but much deeper: It is
the fear that the massive population movement will ultimately reverse
the military outcome of the 1830s and 1840s, returning the region to
Mexico culturally or even politically. Such borderland conflicts rage
throughout the world. The fear is that it will rage here.
The problem is that Mexicans are not seen in the traditional context
of immigration to the United States. As I have said, some see them as
extending their homeland into the United States, rather than as leaving
their homeland and coming to the United States. Moreover, by treating
illegal immigration as an acceptable mode of immigration, a sense of
helplessness is created, a feeling that the prior order of society was
being profoundly and illegally changed. And finally, when those who
express these concerns are demonized, they become radicalized. The
tension between Washington and Arizona — between those who benefit from
the migration and those who don’t — and the tension between
Mexican-Americans who are legal residents and citizens of the United
States and support illegal immigration and non-Mexicans who oppose
illegal immigration creates a potentially explosive situation.
Centuries ago, Scots moved to Northern Ireland after the English
conquered it. The
question of Northern Ireland, a borderland, was never quite
settled. Similarly, Albanians moved to now-independent
Kosovo, where tensions remain high. The world is filled with
borderlands where political and cultural borders don’t coincide and
where one group wants to change the political border that another group
sees as sacred.
Migration to the United States is a normal process. Migration into
the borderlands from Mexico is not. The land was seized from Mexico by
force, territory now experiencing a massive national movement — legal
and illegal — changing the cultural character of the region. It should
come as no surprise that this is destabilizing the region, as
instability naturally flows from such forces.
migration to modern-day Israel represents a worst-case scenario for
borderlands. An absence of stable political agreements undergirding
this movement characterized this process. One of the characteristics of
conflict is mutual demonization. In the case of Arizona,
demonization between the two sides also runs deep. The portrayal of
supporters of Arizona’s new law as racist and the characterization of
critics of that law as un-American is neither new nor promising. It is
the way things would sound in a situation likely to get out of hand.
Ultimately, this is not about the Arizona question. It is about the
relationship between Mexico and the United States on a range of issues,
immigration merely being one of them. The problem as I see it is that
the immigration issue is being treated as an internal debate among
Americans when it is really about reaching an understanding with Mexico.
Immigration has been treated as a subnational issue involving
individuals. It is in fact a geopolitical issue between two
nation-states. Over the past decades, Washington has tried to avoid
turning immigration into an international matter, portraying it rather
as an American law enforcement issue. In my view, it cannot be contained
in that box any longer.