They were pouring in by the thousands, illegally crossing the frontier, then the border. Worse, they weren’t leaving, becoming squatters instead. Often, unassimilated and unruly, the illegal newcomers were committing crimes, including theft and murder. Some of them were even human traffickers, bringing people into the country as slaves. The problem was becoming worse, but the national government was paralyzed. Texas was becoming unlivable. Maybe a military solution would be the only way to secure the border.
A description of today’s crisis on the border? No. This is a description of Texas in the 1830s and the illegal immigrants aren’t dark skinned Mexicans or central or South Americans but white Americans who began pouring to what is today’s Texas from the only recently formed United States. In spite of efforts by the government to ameliorate the aggressive and illegal border crossing with grants of land to the new arrivals on the condition they become citizens, learn Spanish, and adopt the Catholic faith, problems persisted. Some of the immigrants complied. But others didn’t, fomenting an independence movement and finally appealing to the United States to annex Texas, an effort that inevitably lead to the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848.
And the human trafficking? Many of the white settlers brought their slaves with them, something still legal in the United States but not in Mexico. Eventually the situation boiled over into outright war between the two countries; Mexico lost and the rest, as they say, is history.
This isn’t just irony. Today’s situation, like the one almost 200 years ago, is entirely predictable given the economics. Then, wide open territory beckoned the rapidly growing and crowding United States. Mexico didn’t seem to know what it had, while American’s saw a continent, they believed was their manifest density to take. Mexico didn’t seem to take the situation seriously enough until it was far too late and eventually lost more than a third of its territory, from Texas to California.
The United States has three choices on its southern border, not much different than the ones that faced Mexico two centuries ago: address the underlying economic imbalances between the two countries, welcome the new comers and try to assimilate them, or go to war. Each of the choices are riven with moral hazard, economic, strategic, and cultural risks that could be existential.
Addressing the Economic Problem
The only way to understand the flush of immigrants is to understand the basic risk people are taking to get to the United States. People are traveling great distances at sometimes great cost with the possibility of being killed along the way. When they get here, they won’t speak the language, they will be criminals when they cross, and they’ll be consigned to doing menial jobs. The best way to grasp this as an American is to ask one’s self, “Under what circumstances would I flee my home, neighborhood and country to stow away on a ship going to South Korea?” It is an exercise in understanding the notion marginal rate of substitution with the variables including death.
Things are great in America for sure, but these “huddled masses” are not taking the risks because they’re hoping for a star on the sidewalk in Hollywood or a beachfront property in Martha’s Vineyard; they’re often running for their lives from at worst potential murder and at least economic catastrophe.
To stave off the influx, something has to be done to change those conditions; a wall with police and barking dogs can be salutary if conditions at home are worse. But the reality is a long dangerous trip followed by a dangerous border crossing is better than what most people left behind.
How does the United States change things in migrant’s home countries? It would not be easy, requiring coherent investment in infrastructure and political change. It would cost time and money and perhaps American lives. Politically, at home and around the world, this effort would be at best controversial and at worst condemned as colonial. It might end up with limited military engagement in places like Mexico, El Salvador, and Columbia.
Speaking of War
Skipping to the third option, perhaps invading Mexico is the answer. Like other actions, it’s consistent with the Monroe Doctrine, a principle selectively applied during the Cold War against Soviet influence in Cuba, Central and South America. The rationale for an invasion would be to push the border further south if only temporarily in order to restore law and order to a turbulent Mexico which is riven with corruption and has been unable to control its own border.
Mexico tried this against the United States. Force was finally seen as the answer, but it failed. The loss was devastating, and stranded my own forbearers in a bizarre political, cultural, and racial netherland; the Mexican secession was where I grew up, and where I learned that we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. It took 70 years for my home state, New Mexico, to be admitted to the union in large part because those in power in the nation’s capital worried about a dark skinned, monolingual Spanish speaking congressional delegation.
Worse, “what do we with those Indians,” they wondered. Winning the war wasn’t total victory because suddenly there were thousands of people who the day before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed were Mexicans. The treaty didn’t automatically make them Americans. What’s ironic about invading Mexico is that it would, in essence, move our border further south, drawing in millions of people with no interest in being Americans or understanding what that even means. Isn’t that what many on the right are worried about, a change of our national character caused by lots of outsiders entering our country’s borders?
Allow Workers Access to Our Markets
Those people on your television screen can’t do your job and they don’t want it. They want to do the jobs you can’t and don’t want to do. Every year, millions of Spanish speaking people of various national origins, races, and languages pick fruit, clean rooms, burp babies, and wash dishes.
Immigrants who are in this country don’t want jobs; they want to work. There’s a difference. Poor people, particularly immigrants, are survivors, and they provide an essential ingredient to our economy; without them, for example, crops would rot, unharvested, never making it to the market place. Scarcity has a way of creating entrepreneurs and innovators.
But aren’t they all just Democratic voters? This is poppycock. The vast majority of people splashing across or swimming the Rio Grande or crawling across the desert are social conservatives and Roman Catholics. This is often true of immigrants from Africa and around the world, even Muslim countries. The angst on the right over a woke hegemony built on the votes of immigrants is insupportable. Immigrants might even be more socially conservative than the people trying to keep them out.
Unless we miscalculate, immigrants will help our economy and theirs. Creating an easier path for this labor force, legalizing their work status, and incentivizing their return home wealthier, would both help us and help their home countries. Vast amounts of money from immigrants in the United States find their way to other countries. Rather than wasteful and bureaucratic aid programs why not enhance our labor force and let them spend the money here and at home when they get back there or with transfers to their home countries?
An American Union
Our national character has two sides, a xenophobic one and a welcoming one. Both are understandable and both have their own pathologies. The Chinese Exclusion Act was all about protecting American jobs and financial fortunes when, in fact, it was Chinese labor that largely built the west, including the railroads. The Vietnamese boat rescue was epic; but it was undertaken in many ways as affirmation that what the United States was fighting for and against in Viet Nam was legitimate. Both transformed the United States.
When the Normans invaded England there was friction between them and the Anglo-Saxon world they conquered, just like the Anglo-Saxons felt when they attacked native Britons at the end of the Roman Empire. But things change. Our system, born on those islands, is the product of Roman and Viking invasions followed by one from the continent. In the end that system, the English Constitution, formed the practical ideal for democracy everywhere, including in the newly formed United States in 1776; an elected government, an independent judiciary, and freedom of thought and value exchange.
Walls won’t work. War only hastens adverse, sclerotic, and violent cultural change. Optimism that our system and a mix of culturally conservative and diverse ethnicities can only help perpetuate our system and its values. Americans are made, not born. Being an American is more than a national identity, it is a belief, an idea, and a faith that while the world should change at a measured pace, it should always get better. American history is British history, and British history, is English history. The things most Americans value most, like free speech, movement, freedom from government coercion, and the notion of being innocent until proven guilty, are more than 1000-year-old and have their origin in the complex world of the British Isles.
It’s Time to Grow Up
Part of America’s problem is its desperate immaturity. I was recently in Washington DC and noted, as I always do, the different colors in the stone of the Washington Monument. Construction of the monument began in the 1840s and the project went bankrupt and then was held up by the Civil War. There it stood as a stump for almost a generation, until it was finally done in 1885. When all the time passed, the builders realized they’d have to complete the monument with stone that was slightly different in color.
“After adding several courses of this stone from Massachusetts, still recognizable by the naked eye today as a brown-streaked beltline one-third of the way up the monument, the builders turned to a third quarry near Baltimore that proved more favorable, and used that stone for the upper two-thirds of the structure. The stone never matched exactly, and the three slightly different colors from the three quarries are distinguishable today.”
This is our heritage. This is our language. This is our world. This is what it means to be an American. The Washington Monument always portrayed as a glittering white companion to all the other white, marble monuments on the Mall in Washington, isn’t white at all, but a blend of different stone, from different quarries, harvested at different times, by different people with different politics, understandings, and dreams. That is America.
The sooner we understand this, and the sooner we realize that as we import new people we are exporting our ideals, language, and values to each and every place from which those people came, then we will have matured. Then and only then, will we be able to claim the status of greatness, of what Ronald Reagan called a “shining city on a hill.” When we resist change, oppose diversity, and seek purity, we assure our collapse from pressures from the outside. It is counter intuitive. But it seems to be borne out by history over and over again.