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
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 United States.
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 global power.
Population Density and Economic Returns: