The Mexican Border and Illegal Immigration

By Morgan Norval l October 29, 2010


The situation on our southern border poses some looming problems. The violence caused by non-state drug cartels threatens the existence of the Mexican state and it’s only a matter of time before that violence spills further north across our border. The gang-related violence in Mexico, while not the major cause, is contributing to the northward flow of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. from Latin America, mostly Mexico. The balkanization, or total collapse of Mexico, will, at the least, cause even larger numbers of people to become disenchanted with events at home and flee north into the U.S.

This migration can be classified as a regional one within a borderland between two powers—Mexico and the United States—that have established an existing border drawn via past political and military events. Along this borderland, two different populations – Americans and Mexicans – have intermingled for years. Borderlands, as Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor points out, are geographical ones. While America is a nation of immigrants, most of its immigrants had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach the U.S. and were physically isolated from their homelands and had no choice but to assimilate into the dominant American culture.

This is not the situation regarding present day Mexican migration into the lands of the US which are within easy reach from Mexico – in short, the borderland straddling both countries, but particularly within the United States. This area was ceded to the US as a result of the Mexican War (May 1846 – February 1848) and the Gadsden Purchase (June 24, 1854), where many Mexicans living in those areas remained. Here, however, the situation is different. “When a Mexican comes to the United States,” says Freidman, “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, if he chooses, live his life in a perpetual ambiguity.”

Unlike present-day illegal migration from Mexico, prior waves of immigrants to the US did not represent a geographic continuity, nor were they a geopolitical threat. These immigrants’ homelands were far across the oceans and their home countries could not exploit their diasporas’ presence for geopolitical purposes, unlike Mexico which has a policy of encouraging migration into the US. Mexican school texts also add to this by claiming our southwest lands were stolen from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War and rightfully belong to Mexico. In fact, it is the claim of the so-called Reconquista (Reconquest) movement to reclaim these lands for Mexico, including much of today’s American Southwest.

Borderlands are sometimes political flashpoints. A recent example is Kosovo, a disputed area of the Balkans and a part of what was once Yugoslavia and later Serbia bordering Albania. Albanian migration eventually erupted into warfare in the mid-1990s and was only resolved by US and NATO intervention. Kosovo is now a fragile independent nation political entity. Alsace-Lorraine is a borderland between Germany and France and has triggered war between the two countries in the past, with France reclaiming the territory in 1918, and Germany in 1940. After the English conquered Northern Ireland in the 17th Century, Scottish immigrants moved there and the British still have troops in that borderland while attempts to enforce a fragile peace between Irish Catholic and Protestant decedents of the Scottish immigrants. These are just a few of the world’s borderlands where one group wants to change the political border that another group sees as sacred.

Immigration was a major cause of the fall of the ancient Roman Empire. By the end of the 4th Century AD, the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Its citizens were being crushed by staggering taxes and rampant official corruption. Citizens were abandoning the countryside and agricultural production declined, reducing Rome’s tax base. Rome needed the taxes to subsidize and hire barbarian tribes living on the Empire’s borders, as Roman citizens were not flocking to join the military.

Rome hired men from these borderland tribes and incorporated them into the legions. Another reason Rome was forced to do this was the numerous civil wars hastening Rome’s decline. Roman generals were fighting each other to seize political power and these wars took a huge toll on available manpower. The Empire thus had to entice others to do the job either because there weren’t enough Romans willing to join the military or not enough of them to replace the casualties. This policy resulted in groups such as Franks, Vandals, Alans, and Visogoths filling the ranks of the legion. The paucity of tax revenues then forced Rome to pay these folks with land inside the Empire’s borders. The tribes did not see themselves as Romans, and made no effort to adapt themselves to Roman customs and laws. Within a few hundred years they had destroyed the Western Roman Empire, ushering in the centuries-long historical period known as the Dark Ages.

Ancient economies, such as the Roman Empire were based on agriculture relying on local labor, unlike today where individual immigrants can find employment in different sectors of a modern economy such as the United States. On the borderlands, but within the Roman Empire, jobs weren’t available in agriculture to entice migratory labor. The only means available for foreign migrants was to take by force the agricultural border areas from Roman citizens. To do this, migrants had to arrive in big numbers with enough force, often numbering in the tens of thousands or more of warriors with their dependents, to grab Rome’s land and replace Roman agricultural workers. The Mexican military, however, is too weak to attempt such an endeavor today.

Wealth-seeking migrants today, in contrast to ancient Rome, seek wealth as individuals taking different jobs throughout a modern economy. Yet, like countless drops of rain turning into a river, the totality of individual migrants is turning into a torrent flooding across our southern border and they are bringing their culture along with them. As a result, the culture of our southern border with Mexico is moving north. The cultural character of our border with Mexico is shifting north into the US as these economic and demographic processes accelerate.

Unlike Rome, we aren’t hiring numbers of people to protect our borders but are hiring them to work for us in numerous sectors of our economy, mainly agriculture and construction.

As the flow of migrants coming over our porous southern border continues unabated and as many if not most seem uninterested in assimilating into American culture, the question arises, “Could history be repeating itself?”

Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.