OP-EDS

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April 7, 2006

Listen to the French? On immigration?

Don’t look now, but we are beginning to resemble the French. Though smoking is down and body odor forecasts show only modest gains, Americans, like our stuffy European acquaintances have begun to openly question immigration. Though the anti-immigration crusade has taken many forms, most notably as opposition to the “guest worker” proposal now floating around Congress, the debate about immigrants has begun to rage in all corners of our country. Many populist politicians claim that immigrants will drive down wages and take jobs from “ordinary Americans,” but anyone with less than three degrees of Facebook separation from a U of C econ major knows better.

The deeper issue, according to several academics, seems to be the long-range threat to American security posed by a Mexican population overwhelming the borderlands. Some in conservative policy circles have argued that a long-term change in the North American power dynamic—Mexico becomes a global power and the U.S. recedes (eventually, a likely scenario on both sides)—will create a land struggle for the borderlands similar to the Indian-Pakistani fight over Kashmir. The argument is certainly not without merit—Texas, after all, was first a land of economic opportunity for early Americans and only later did those Americans successfully orchestrate its annexation into the United States.

In a recent article, Dr. George Friedman, head of the private-sector intelligence service Strategic Forecasting, remarks, “Over the next couple of hundred years, should Washington’s power weaken and Mexico City’s increase, the borders might…shift once again.”

Thus, Washington’s fight over immigration is not just a populist phenomenon—it is a real, grounded intellectual debate.

This strategic fear, while intriguing, is thoroughly overstated. Most extrapolations show that, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will remain a global military and economic power. Furthermore, America’s dominance vis-à-vis Mexico will continue even longer, given Mexico’s current lack of the requisite societal infrastructure that would prime it for a potential economic boom. It is certainly telling that most American companies outsource to China and India while comparatively neglecting neighboring Mexico. Thus, while America’s dominance appears to be safe for many years to come, Mexico is showing few signs of becoming a global power.

Given this reality, a large Mexican population in the borderlands does not pose a long-term separatist threat to the U.S. It is indeed possible-—even likely—that the North American power dynamic will shift after a few hundred years, but I question whether the descendants of Mexican immigrants will be sufficiently Mexican by that time to revolt against the US and cause border change.

The great beauty of immigration in the United States, as compared with Europe, is that all immigrants eventually become undeniably “American.” Even if the first generation does not assimilate, the second certainly does, and the third even more so. The children of immigrants might stay closer to home both geographically and psychologically because they were raised by immigrant parents, but the second generation of naturalized citizens will be firmly born into American culture, with the freedom to attend university in Chicago, get a masters in New York, and work in Seattle.

Economic opportunities in urban centers around the country will eventually cause a diaspora of the borderland population. An educated, second-generation Mexican-American will find little in El Paso, and neither Los Angeles nor Phoenix will transform into financial and educational centers of the country in the foreseeable future. If a youth has a choice between attending the University of Chicago and UC-Santa Barbara, it is likely the child will come to Chicago. If there is a job paying $100,000 in New York and $60,000 in Los Angeles or Phoenix, most people would choose the job in New York. Even if the first three generations stay somewhat close to home—a generous estimate—200 years will see 10 generations and plenty of racial mixing. I, for example, am a fifth generation American and have zero allegiance to any of my European ancestral countries.

Already, a Pew Hispanic Research Report shows that 78 percent of third-generation Hispanics are primarily English speakers, while the second generation still shows a half-half split of English-dominant and bilingual individuals. Further, 57 percent of third-generation Latinos identify themselves as pure American, even above categories such as “Latino or Hispanic” and “Country of origin.” Comparing this 57 percent of the third generation to just 35 percent in the previous generation, one can imagine what these figures might look like after 10 generations.

I understand that opponents of Mexican immigration argue that Mexicans are strategically different from most Latinos because of Mexico’s location, but 63 percent of the Latinos in the U.S. are Mexican, so the aforementioned figures must be considered significant. Thus, even if Los Angeles and Phoenix become more Mexican, each successive generation of kids will grow up eating apple pie, pledging allegiance, making fun of Canada, and doing all the things that forge the unbreakable bond to the U.S. that most current citizens feel. There is almost no chance of future borderland Mexican-Americans starting a separatist revolt like in Chechnya or Kashmir. A large influx of Mexican immigrants is about as dangerous as a rise in Quaker extremism.

Therefore, the territorial danger posed by unchecked population of the borderland is greatly overstated. Further, the United States middle class is getting complacent with its high standard of living, and middle class unemployment will rise unless new, motivated immigrants continue to power the economy. The immigrant waves from China and India will trickle off as those areas continue to emerge as economic powers. Far from being a threat, then, Mexican immigrants represent our greatest hope.