Monday, January 21, 2008

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana

A Story on the Mexican Repatriation During the Great Depression

Immigrationfeature has a story titled "Immigrants: The Last Time America Sent Her Own Packing Fueled by the Great Depression, an anti-immigrant frenzy engulfed hundreds of thousands of legal American citizens in a drive to ‘repatriate’ Mexicans to their homeland," by Steve Boisson. Click here for the full story. It truly is amazing that so much has been written on this topic in the last year or two, which has remained invisible for so long. If Congress passes a pending bill sponsored by Rep. Hilda Solis (D-California) that would create a comission to more fully investigate this history, we would have an even better idea of what happened during what Francisco Balderrama has aptly called the Decade of Betrayal. For a recent law review article on the Mexican repatriation and its parallels to the modern "war on terror," click here. (Source:

Americans have not heard of the forced removal of approximately one million persons—U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens—of Mexican ancestry from the United States during the Great Depression. This is true despite the fact that the number of repatriates dwarfed by about tenfold the number of persons of Japanese ancestry who were interned by the United States government during World War II. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness of the repatriation is consistent with the general invisibility of Latina/o civil rights deprivations throughout much of U.S. history.

An economic threat had placed the nation’s future in jeopardy, caused severe economic distress for many U.S. citizens, and effectively compelled the government to act. A discrete and insular minority, the most available and vulnerable target, suffered from the government’s policy choice.

The tragedy of the Mexican repatriation is well worth remembering as the United States continues to wage a “war on terror” in response to the horrible loss of life on September 11, 2001. This “war” has targeted Arab and Muslim noncitizens suspected of no crime and subjected them to special immigration procedures, arrest, detention, and deportation from the United States.

In criticizing the government’s responses to the tragic events of September 11, the specter of the internment of the persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II has often been invoked. The analogy is apt in important ways, with racial profiling based on statistical probabilities at the core of the governmental policies adopted in both incidents. In my estimation, however, the repatriation of the 1930s also has modern relevance in evaluating the measures taken by the U.S. government in the name of national security after September 11. This paper draws out the historic and legal parallels between these two episodes in U.S. legal history and suggests that the nation should pay heed to the excesses of the past in considering its practices and policies
in the “war on terror.”
(Kevin R. Johnson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Law, University of California at Davis, "The Forgotten “Repatriation” of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the “War on Terror”" PACE LAW REVIEW, Volume 26 Fall 2005 Number 1)

Immigrants: The Last Time America Sent Her Own Packing
Fueled by the Great Depression, an anti-immigrant frenzy engulfed hundreds of thousands of legal American citizens in a drive to ‘repatriate’ Mexicans to their homeland.

By Steve Boisson

A 9-year-old girl stood in the darkness of a railroad station, surrounded by tearful travelers who had gathered up their meager belongings, awaiting the train that would take her from her native home to a place she had never been. The bewildered child couldn't know she was a character in the recurring drama of America's love-hate relationship with peoples from foreign lands who, whether fleeing hardship or oppression or simply drawn to the promise of opportunity and prosperity, desperately strive to be Americans. As yet another act in the long saga of American immigration unfolds today, some U.S. citizens can recall when, during a time of anti-immigrant frenzy fueled by economic crisis and racism, they found themselves being swept out of the country of their birth.

Emilia Castañeda will never forget that 1935 morning. Along with her father and brother, she was leaving her native Los Angeles. Staying, she was warned by some adults at the station, meant she would become a ward of the state. "I had never been to Mexico," Castañeda said some six decades later. "We left with just one trunk full of belongings. No furniture. A few metal cooking utensils. A small ceramic pitcher, because it reminded me of my mother…and very little clothing. We took blankets, only the very essentials."

As momentous as that morning seemed to the 9-year-old Castañeda, such departures were part of a routine and roundly accepted movement to send Mexicans and Mexican-Americans back to their ancestral home. Los Angeles County–sponsored repatriation trains had been leaving the station bound for Mexico since 1931, when, in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the economic collapse and dislocation that followed, welfare cases skyrocketed. The county Board of Supervisors, other county and municipal agencies and the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed repatriation of Mexicans as a humane and utilitarian solution to the area's growing joblessness and dwindling resources. Even the Mexican consul stationed in Los Angeles praised the effort, at least at the outset, thanking the welfare department for its work "among my countrymen, in helping them return to Mexico." The Mexican government, still warmed by the rhetoric of the 1910 revolution, was touting the development of agricultural colonies and irrigation projects that would provide work for the displaced compatriots from the north.

By 1935, however, it was hard to detect much benevolence driving the government-sponsored train rides to Mexico. For young Castañeda's father, Mexico was the last resort, a final defeat after 20 years of legal residence in America. His work as a union bricklayer had enabled him to buy a house, but -- like millions of other Americans -- his house and job were lost to the Depression. His wife, who had worked as a maid, contracted tuberculosis in 1933 and died the following year. "My father told us that he was returning to Mexico because he couldn't find work in Los Angeles," Castañeda said. "He wasn't going to abandon us. We were going with him. When L.A. County arranged for our trip to Mexico, he and other Mexicans had no choice but to go."

Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, the authors of Decade of Betrayal, the first expansive study of Mexican repatriation with perspectives from both sides of the border, claim that 1 million people of Mexican descent were driven from the United States during the 1930s due to raids, scare tactics, deportation, repatriation and public pressure. Of that conservative estimate, approximately 60 percent of those leaving were legal American citizens. Mexicans comprised nearly half of all those deported during the decade, although they made up less than 1 percent of the country's population. "Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat," Balderrama and Rodríguez wrote. "They found it in the Mexican community."

During the early years of the 20th century, the U.S. Immigration Service paid scant attention to Mexican nationals crossing the border. The disfavored groups among border watchers at the time were the Chinese, who had been explicitly barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, criminals, lunatics, prostitutes, paupers and those suffering from loathsome and contagious diseases. In actuality, the Mexican immigrant was often a pauper, but he was not, in the law's language, "likely to become a public charge." Cheap Mexican labor was in great demand by a host of America's burgeoning industries. The railroads, mining companies and agribusinesses sent agents to greet immigrants at the border, where they extolled the rewards of their respective enterprises. Border officials felt no duty to impede the labor flow into the Southwest.

The Mexican population in the United States escalated during the years following 1910. By 1914, according to author Matt S. Meier, the chaos and bloodshed of the Mexican revolution had driven as many as 100,000 Mexican nationals into the United States, and they would continue to cross the border in large numbers legally and illegally. Immigration laws were tightened in 1917, but their enforcement at the border remained lax. While laws enacted in 1921 and 1924 imposed quotas on immigrants from Europe and other parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, quotas were not applied to Mexico or other Western nations. This disparity found its detractors, particularly East Texas congressman John C. Box, who was a vocal proponent of curtailing the influx from the south.

Though none of Box's proposals became law, his efforts drew favorable coverage in the Saturday Evening Post and other journals that editorialized against the "Mexicanization" of the United States. When a Midwestern beet grower who hired Mexican immigrants appeared at a House Immigration Committee hearing, Box suggested that the man's ideal farm workers were "a class of people who have not the ability to rise, who have not the initiative, who are children, who do not want to own land, who can be directed by men in the upper stratum of society. That is what you want, is it?"

"I believe that is about it," replied the grower.

Those who exploited cheap Mexican labor, argued Box and his adherents, betrayed American workers and imperiled American cities with invading hordes of mixed-blood foreigners. Those who railed against quotas should visit the barrios in Los Angeles, wrote Kenneth L. Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post, "and see endless streets crowded with the shacks of illiterate, diseased, pauperized Mexicans, taking no interest whatever in the community, living constantly on the ragged edge of starvation, bringing countless numbers of American citizens into the world with the reckless prodigality of rabbits."


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