Although I believe this law is truly unjust and discriminatory, I do understand the frustrations of Arizonans at the failure of the US Congress to pass an immigration law that they and the rest of us can live with. But I’m not going to discuss this law, its implications, or the likely upcoming challenges to its constitutionality. Others have spoken more eloquently about the terrible wrongheadedness of this law, so I’ll let them speak (see here, here, and here for examples). Instead, I would rather dig deeper and discuss the topics of human migration, US history, and how our nation’s immigration policies might prepare for the future.
In a book I read recently, I came across a fascinating thought. Writer John Michael Greer writes about what he sees as the possible future of industrial society as fossil fuel energy becomes more costly. In writing about the probability of large-scale, worldwide human migration in the near future, he writes:
“The first ripples of the future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through the rural United States anywhere west of the Mississippi River or south of the Mason-Dixon line. Stray from the freeways and tourist towns and culturally speaking, as often as not, you’re in Mexico instead of the United States: the billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music and sports teams and people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this as purely a Southwestern phenomenon, but it has become just as common in the Northwest, the mountain states and large sections of the deep South. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally and some very large number—no one agrees on what it is, but eight million is the lowest figure anyone mentions—who are here illegally. As the migration continues, much of what was once the United States is becoming something else.The American settlement of the West was a failure? This is certainly not a thought that ever came to my mind. I haven’t traveled extensively in the West, so I have no first-hand knowledge of what Greer is describing. And the deep South? Is it true that many of the good folks of Yoknapatawpha County will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo next week? I don’t know.
“A great deal of angry rhetoric has flared from all sides of the current debates on immigration, but none of it deals with the driving force behind these changes— the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States failed to work west of the Mississippi. Today the cities and farm towns that once spread across the Great Plains are fading into memory as their economic basis vanishes and the last residents move away, while the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income or cash crops for distant markets—none of them viable once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past.
“Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be temporary, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and the cultural vitality to take its place. The same thing is happening in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants stream across a long and inadequately guarded border, making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. Such shifts are very common when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp.” (Greer 44-45)
However, in the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris wrote about the ongoing depopulation of the high plains; for example:
“You will pass a few modest homes and farm buildings along the way, some in use, others in disrepair. The most recently abandoned, a classic two-story farmhouse, has boarded-up windows and an extensive but weed-choked corral. A house abandoned years ago is open to the elements, all its windows and most of its shingles gone. A large shelterbelt, planted in the 1930s, is now a thicket of dead trees. Once the trees are gone the house will lean with the wind until it collapses; but that will be a while.” (Norris 161)Reports I have read and heard about this region indicate that depopulation has only increased in the eighteen or so years since Norris wrote these words. Lands in the western Great Plains given to families under the Homestead Act are proving unsuitable for sustained agriculture and are reverting to short grass prairie as the farms are abandoned.
While it’s doubtless too early to tell for sure whether Greer is right that Anglo occupation of the West is temporary (the “temporary” Arab occupation of Spain that Greer cites lasted 800 years, after all), it does make one ponder the fate of Anglo-American settlements that grew in the wake of US policies rooted in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that nineteenth century, quasi-religious notion that the USA was destined by divine right to spread across the North American continent. One of those policies is directly relevant to the immigrant question: Manifest Destiny was used to justify going to war against Mexico in the 1840s. The most significant result of that war was the US annexation of large parts of formerly Mexican territory: Colorado, Utah, California, and most of the desert southwest, including Arizona. Opponents of the Mexican War, most famously Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, saw it as a land grab and an attempt to expand slavery into new territories; supporters used Manifest Destiny to justify it.
However we might feel today about US control of these formerly Mexican lands and how we acquired them, it’s important to note that the US/Mexico border is and always has been an arbitrary line drawn across the desert and never a complete cultural divide. It seems to me that much of the current acrimony over illegal immigration has tended to forget this. We want to believe that nation states (including the United States, while making allowances for its ethnic diversity) are neat packages of culturally if not ethnically distinct human beings living within well-defined, secure borders, and that’s the way it’s always been. Historically this has not been the case; the fact that it has been the case for as long as anyone alive can remember is due to some unusual historical circumstances that encouraged the rise of the nation state in late Renaissance Europe. The United States was born during this period of nation state ascendancy, so we tend to think of it as normal. Like all periods of history, though, this state of affairs is certain not to continue forever, though it’s anyone’s guess as to when this particular set of circumstances might end.
For most of human history, ever since our first ancestors began migrating out of Africa on their way to populating the remotest corners of the globe, migration has been a normal state of affairs. Most of us are familiar with migration stories from history and legend: the biblical Hebrews come immediately to mind; then there were the Anglo-Saxons, who left their homes in what is now northern Germany (called Saxony to this day) to settle in southern Britain, pushing the Celtic Britons west into Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. The Aryans migrated from an uncertain location in the Eurasian steppes and established themselves in India over 3,700 years ago, and the Celts themselves probably migrated into the westernmost outposts of Europe from the central Danube basin sometime around 500 BCE. Ancestors of the Navajo nation of the Arizona desert lived in the northwestern portions of Canada near the Great Slave Lake; they have legends of a time when their people lived in the frozen north.
The reasons for migration can be many: overpopulation, lack of sufficient resources, war, drought or famine, social pressures, religious persecution. Greer believes, and I concur with him, that many of these pressures are going to increase in the future as world population continues to grow and as resource depletion, such as fossil fuels, water, and soil, forces people once again to make these kinds of choices. And I haven’t even mentioned the potential pressure that climate upheaval may bring to bear on human populations. Already we’ve seen climate change refugees in some parts of the world.
Most Americans view illegal immigration as little more than a trespassing and economics issue, but if migratory pressures are in play here, it’s a far bigger set of circumstances than that. Whether Greer proves correct about the temporary nature of Anglo settlement of the West, it seems that migratory pressures in Mexico and other parts of Latin America may be increasing. Some have pointed to US farm subsidy policy, coupled with “free trade” agreements that allow subsidized US corn to be sold in Mexico for much less than local growers can produce it, forcing Mexican campesinos off their land and giving them an incentive to try their luck in the USA. Others point to population pressure. In the future, climate change and population may play a far larger role than economics.
The bottom line is that Arizona’s new law will fail, one way or another. Securing the borders, to the extent that we will be able to, is a federal, not a state responsibility. Congress needs to rise to the challenge and pass a comprehensive immigration law that both provides for just enforcement and accommodates the realities we face in a changing world. The longer Congress displays lack of courage to tackle this tough issue, the more excuses their inaction will offer others to take matters into their own hands, like Arizona has done.
We may be able to secure the border with a just law. But it’s also possible that future migratory pressures may become a force we cannot stop. In that case, the best we might be able to hope for is to manage the influx of refugees and migrants. Whatever happens, one thing appears certain, though: Manifest Destiny seems at last to be dead.
Greer, John Michael. The Ecotechnic Future. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 2009.
Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.