Migration is said to be good for host cultures. Geographers, demographers and business people believe it is, especially in the US, where one migrant group after another – Jews, Poles, Italians, Irish – has auditioned for a role in the great musical of American identity. The competition has been bitter, especially between newcomers and predecessors, and the typecasting has been crude, yet sooner or later every minority earns its place in the chorus. Nonetheless there’s a growing sense in some parts of the US that enough is enough, the stage is full to capacity and the show can no longer go on as it has. The source of this impatience is illegal immigration from Mexico, which is no longer seen primarily as a supply of service employees, farm labour and building workers, but as a threat to an indebted nation still embroiled in distant wars, with land borders to north and south that it can’t patrol as effectively as it would like and unemployment hovering at around 9 per cent. The US already has more than 11 million unauthorised migrants. About six and a half million are from Mexico and another two million from other parts of Latin America. Every year, many thousands more are crossing from Mexico without permission, to swell their ranks. Roughly 500,000 Hispanics – 8 per cent of the population of the state – are living in Arizona without authorisation. Arizona has become an operational front in yet another desert conflict.
The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating even as Obama draws down the numbers abroad. Despite war-weariness at home, war has remained the model for curbing illegal immigration; territorial integrity and the preservation of national identity are the goals.