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The Mexican Repatriation refers to a mass migration that took place during the Great Depression, when as many as two million people of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the US. This event occurred during the latter end of the Hoover Presidency and into Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second term. The event, carried out by American authorities, took place without due process. The Immigration and Naturalization Service targeted Mexicans because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios."
Studies have provided conflicting numbers for how many people were “repatriated” during the Great Depression. The State of California passed an "Apology Act" that estimated 2 million people were forced to relocate to Mexico and an estimated 1.2 million were US citizens. Authors Balderrama and Rodriguez have estimated that the total number of repatriates was about one million, and 60 percent of those were citizens of the United States. These estimates come from newspaper articles and government records and the authors assert all previous estimates severely under counted the number of repatriates (Balderrama). An older study conducted by Hoffman argues that about 500,000 people were sent to Mexico. His data come from the "Departmento de Migracion de Mexico" or “Mexican Migration Service,” which is said to be a reliable source since the Mexican government had many ports along the border in which Mexicans were required to register and could do so free of charge (Aguila and Hoffman).
The Repatriation is not widely discussed in American history textbooks; in a 2006 survey of the nine most commonly used American history textbooks in the United States, four did not mention the Repatriation, and only one devoted more than half a page to the topic. Nevertheless, many mainstream textbooks now carry this topic. In total, they devoted four pages to the Repatriation, compared with eighteen pages for the Japanese American internment which, though also a gross violation of the rights of citizens, affected a much smaller number of people, even by the more conservative estimates for the Mexican deportations.
These actions were authorized by President Herbert Hoover and continued by FDR who was the 32nd President of the United States (1933–1945) and targeted areas with large Hispanic populations, mostly in California, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan.
“Even immigration scholars have frequently labeled Mexicans as part of a ‘new immigrant’ grouping in comparison to Europeans such as the Irish and Italians ถGermans,” which he claims to be a widely held misconception. Mexicans have been immigrating to the United States for more than a century in response to US labor demands and have been citizens of the United States in the Southwestern states since the Mexican-American war in the mid-1800s.
From 1846 to 1848 the U.S. and Mexico fought a war that would result in the Mexico ceding the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States paid $15 million for the land that reduced Mexican territory to 55 percent of what it was before the war. The treaty promised US citizenship to the estimated 80,000 Mexican citizens residing in the territories ceded to the US, although Mexican citizens who were considered Native Americans were excluded, and about 2,000 of the total 80,000 decided to move further south into territories still considered Mexico. Moreover, although Mexicans were considered US citizens and counted as white on the US census all the way up until 1930, the public most likely did not see them this way and treated them as foreigners.
During the California Gold Rush of 1848, many Mexicans had immigrated in order to work in the California mines or to help build the growing railroads. Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Mexican immigrants began to increase in numbers in order to fill the labor demand that had previously been held mainly by Chinese immigrants. At the onset of the 20th century, “US employers went so far as to make request directly to the president of Mexico to send more labor into the United States” and hired “aggressive labor recruiters who work outside the parameters of the US” in order to recruit Mexican labor for jobs in industry, railroads, meatpacking, steel mills, and agriculture. “By 1900 approximately 500,000 people of Mexican ancestry lived in the United States. Roughly 100,000 of these residents were born in Mexico; the remainder were second-generation inhabitants . . . and their offspring.”
The chaotic Mexican Revolution caused many Mexicans to flee Mexico during the war years of 1910-1920. An estimated 2,000,000 people died during this time, causing many to immigrate north into the U.S. in order to escape the violence. Also, during this revolutionary period many farmers were unable to cope with the drastic increase in the cost of living that had risen 70 percent, forcing many to immigrate North in search of employment.
In 1924, the first official border patrol was established on the Mexico–U.S. border. Prior to this date, however, Mexican immigration was not restricted in the way it is today: “a Mexican caught crossing the border illegally was told that if he wished to enter the US, he had to do so at a regular station and pay the fees.” Moreover, immigration from the Western Hemisphere had remained unrestricted until 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, even though countries from Eastern Europe and Africa, for example, had limitations, severely restricting immigration from those countries.
Due to the laxity of immigration enforcement during these times, many citizens, legal residents, and immigrants did not have the papers proving their citizenship, had lost their papers, or just never applied for citizenship. The feeling of not belonging and of being viewed as a foreigner lingered among the Mexican population in the US, as described by Hoffman: “the privileges of American citizenship offered little of substance to the Mexican national who knew that if he became a citizen he would still be, in the eyes of the Anglos, a Mexican” (Hoffman 20). For these reasons, and because there was a feeling of protection by remaining a Mexican citizen and a sense of group pressure not to apply for citizenship by other Mexicans (Hoffman 19), many Mexicans did not have the paperwork in order to prove their legitimacy in the United States, or the citizenship in order to secure them the rights provided to American citizens (Aguila).
Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 in the United States, the US economy began to crumble, and the ensuing devastation quickly reverberated throughout the world, affecting the economies of countries both rich and poor for almost a decade. As a result of the Great Depression, thousands of banks closed, international trade plummeted, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were consumed by the depression and lost everything, including their homes, their jobs, and many could not even afford to feed their families. United States unemployment jumped from a low of 4.2 percent in 1928 to a high of 25 percent in 1933, the highest unemployment rate in US history. By 1938, unemployment remained high at 19 percent and did not fall below 10 percent until 1941. The Hoover administration’s inability to curtail the disintegrating economy during the initial, and worst, years of the depression led many to despise President Hoover. The perceived lack of assistance from the federal government upset many citizens and organized labor, and, in order to improve “organized labor’s hostile attitude toward his administration,” President Hoover used immigrants in the country as a scapegoat to divert criticism (Balderrama 4).
The impact of the Great Depression on the Bridgeport coal miners was devastating. These laborers possessed very few skills other than coal mining. Most were unable to obtain other employment, and many returned to Mexico either by choice but many by force. There were few economic opportunities for unskilled workers in Mexico in the 1930s. The economic advances achieved by these immigrant Mexican laborers and their US-born children during the early decades of the twentieth century were probably little to nothing. Immigration to the United States was sharply ceased during the Depression. Few Mexican repatriates were able to reenter the United States during the 1930s, though it is probable, however, that many of the Bridgeport miners returned to the United States when immigration restrictions were relaxed.
According to county officials, returning immigrants to their country of origin would save the city money by reducing the number of needy families using up federal welfare funds and free up jobs for “real” Americans. A telegram to the US Government Coordinator of Unemployment Relief sent by C.P. Visel, the spokesman for Los Angeles Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief, wrote of the “deportable aliens” in LA county. He stated, “local U.S. Department of Immigration personnel not sufficient to handle. You advise please as to method of getting rid. We need their jobs for needy citizens” (Balderrama 67). A member of the Los Angeles County board of Supervisors, H.M. Blaine “allegedly remarked that the majority of the Mexicans in the Los Angeles Colonia were either on relief or were public charges,” even though sources at the time documented that less than 10 percent of people on welfare across the country were Mexican or of Mexican descent (Balderrama 99). Many white American citizens who were experiencing the negative effects of the Great Depression followed suit in blaming immigrants for their desperation and thought that removing immigrants from relief rolls and having them deported out of the country would solve their problems (Balderrama 100). Independent groups such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the National Club of America for Americans thought that deporting Mexicans would free up jobs for citizens and the latter group urged Americans to pressure the government into deporting Mexicans (Balderrama 68).
Balderrama’s book cites a study conducted during the 1930s analyzing deportation costs. It puts into question the prevailing argument of the time that immigrants deported would reduce city costs overall. He writes, “if 1,200 aliens were deported, they would leave behind 1,478 dependents who would be eligible for public welfare. $90,000 in government costs to deport individuals and $147,000 yearly to provide for their families indefinitely or until they reached legal age. 80% of those deported would be eligible to obtain non-quota preference for reentry due to the fact that they had wives, children, or other relatives who were citizens or legal residents” (Balderrama 77).
As the effects of the Great Depression worsened and affected larger amounts of people, feelings of hostility toward immigrants increased rapidly, and the Mexican community as a whole suffered as a result. States began passing laws that required all public employees to be American citizens and employers were subject to harsh penalties such as a five hundred dollar fine or six months in jail if they hired immigrants. Although the law was hardly enforced, “employers used it as a convenient excuse for not hiring Mexicans. It also made it difficult for any Mexican, whether American citizens or foreign born, to get hired” (Balderrama 89). The federal government posed restrictions for immigrant labor as well, requiring firms that supply the government with goods and services refrain from hiring immigrants and, as a result, most larger corporations followed suit, and as a result, many employers fired their Mexican employees and few hired new Mexican workers causing unemployment to increase among the Mexican population (Balderrama 89-91).
President Hoover desperately needed a way in which to improve his popularity among citizens. In order to achieve this goal, he publicly endorsed Secretary of Labor William N. Doak and his campaign to add “245 more agents to assist in the deportation of 500,000 foreigners” (Balderrama 75). Doak’s endeavors to rid the country of Mexican immigrants has been described as unscrupulous. His measures included monitoring labor protests or agrarian strikes and labeling protestors and protest leaders as possible subversives, communists, or radicals. “Strike leaders and picketers would be arrested, charged with being illegal aliens or engaging in illegal activities, and thus be subject to arbitrary deportation” (Balderrama 76). Labeling Mexican activists in this way was a way to garner public support for actions taken by the immigration agents and federal government such as mass raids, arbitrary arrests, and deportation campaigns.
In response to LA county’s Unemployment Relief Coordinator Visel’s aforementioned telegram, the federal government sent Supervisors of the Bureau of Immigration, Walter E. Carr and W.F. Watkins (both at different times) to LA to help conduct deportations in the Los Angeles area.
According to Hoffman, “from 1931 on, cities and counties across the country intensified and embarked upon repatriation programs, conducted under the auspices of either local welfare bureaus or private charitable agencies” (83). Los Angeles chairman of the board of supervisors‘ charities and public welfare committee, Frank L. Shaw had researched about the legality of deportation but was advised by legal counsel that only the federal government was legally allowed to engage in deportation proceedings (Hoffman). As a result, the county decided that their campaign would be called “repatriation,” which Balderrama asserts was a euphemism for deportation.
C.P. Visel, the spokesman for Los Angeles Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief began his “unemployment relief measure” that would create a “psychological gesture” intended to “scarehead” Mexicans out of the United States. His idea was to have a series of “publicity releases announcing the deportation campaign, a few arrests would be made “with all publicity possible and pictures,” and both police and deputy sheriffs would assist” (Balderrama 2). Watkins, Supervisor of the Bureau of Immigration, and his agents were responsible for many mass raids and deportations, and the local government was responsible for the media attention that was given to these raids in order to “scarehead” immigrants, specifically Mexicans, although there were repeated press releases from LA city officials that affirmed Mexicans were not being targeted. Actions taken by immigration officials proved otherwise, provoking many vociferous complaints and criticisms from The Mexican Consulate and Spanish language magaizine, La Opinión (Balderrama).
According to Hoffman, the streets of East Los Angeles, a heavily populated Mexican area, had been deserted only after the first few days that raids had been conducted (Hoffman). Local merchants complained to investigators that the raids were bad for their businesses. According to Balderrama, “raids assumed the logistics of full-scale paramilitary operations. Federal officials, country deputy sheriffs, and city police cooperated in local roundups in order to assure maximum success” (71). Sheriff Traeger and his deputies were infamous for their unscrupulous tactics including large round ups of Mexicans who were arbitrarily arrested and taken to jail without checking whether or not the people were carrying documentation (Hoffman). Jose David Orozco described on his local radio station the ““women crying in the streets when not finding their husbands” after deportation sweeps had occurred” (Balderrama 70). Mexican Consulates across the country were receiving complaints of “harassment, beatings, heavy-handed tactics, and verbal abuse” (Balderrama 79).
Historians have identified and discussed various raids. Three of them include the San Fernando Raid, La Placita Raid, and El Monte Raid. The San Fernando Raid took place on Ash Wednesday. Immigration agents and deputies blocked off all exits to the colonia and “rode around the neighborhood with their sirens wailing and advising people to surrender themselves to the authorities” (Balderrama 72). La Placita Raid occurred on February 26, 1931. Led by Watkins, immigration officers enclosed a park with 400 Mexicans. Everyone in the park was made to line up and show evidence of legal entry into the United States before they could leave (Balderrama). In the El Monte Raid, 300 people were stopped and questioned, 13 were jailed, and of the 13 jailed, 12 were Mexican (Hoffman).
Most people were unconstitutionally denied their legal rights of Due Process and Equal Protection under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment. Any presence of the law was absent whilst hundreds of thousands of people were interrogated and detained by authorities. When it came to federal deportation proceedings, undocumented immigrants, once apprehended, had two options. They could either ask for a hearing or “voluntarily” return to their native country. The benefit to asking for a hearing was the potential to persuade the immigration officer that if they were returned to their home country they would be placed in a life-threatening situation (which was the case for those who had fled the war or were escaping religious persecution) and would be able to stay under the current immigration law as refugees, but if they lost the hearing, they would be barred from ever returning to the United States legally again. Although requesting a hearing was a possibility, immigration officers rarely informed undocumented immigrants of their rights, and the hearings were “official but informal,” in that immigration inspectors “acted as interpreter, accuser, judge, and jury” (Balderrama 67). Moreover, the deportee was seldom represented by a lawyer, a privilege that could only be granted at the discretion of the immigration officer (Balderrama). The second option, which was to voluntarily deport themselves from the US, would allow these individuals to reenter the US legally at a later date because “no arrest warrant was issued and no legal record or judicial transcript of the incident was kept” (Balderrama 79). However, many were being misled and enticed to leave the country by county officials who told Mexicans if they left now they would be able to return later. But many were given a “stamp on their card by the Department of Charities/County Welfare Department which makes it impossible for any of the Mexican born to return, since it shows that they have been county charities. All that the American officials had to do was invoke the “liable to become a public charge” clause of the 1917 Immigration Act and deny readmission” (Hoffman 91). Many were also threatened by county officials that insisted individuals and their family members would be removed from relief rolls if they did not accept the county’s offer to pay for their return to Mexico (Balderrama). In this way, individuals were simultaneously threatened and enticed by the offer for a free trip to Mexico. The Mexican Consulate during these repatriation campaigns was also promulgating and sponsoring campaigns to repatriate Mexicans - the expenses would be paid and some would even be repatriated to a job in Mexico, although these sort of programs could not be sponsored throughout the entire repatriation campaign (Balderrama).
Since the 1930s many Mexican American families have had to face the unbearable decisions on how to proceed after a loved one is repatriated. Repatriation can challenge Mexican American families facing deportation financially and emotionally. Families facing the dilemma of forced deportation must decide how to overcome the financial burden of travel, and/or costly attorney fees for the legal proceedings to obtain a visa. One must also consider the financial burden of downsizing to one income when one parent must repatriate. There is an emotional devastation that the children (who are legal United States citizens) of Mexican immigrants can suffer when their parents repatriate. It has been said that this type of a separation of families is comparable to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The alternative option, which would be relocating the American born children to their parent’s homeland brings many difficult challenges for the children.
The federal government has not apologized for the repatriations. In 2006, representatives Hilda Solis and Luis Gutiérrez introduced a bill calling for a commission to study the issue, and called for an apology.
The state of California was the first state to apologize when it passed the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program" in 2005, officially recognizing the "unconstitutional removal and coerced emigration of United States citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent" and apologizing to residents of California "for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights committed during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration."
In 1920 and 1921, the US economy was hard hit by a short but deep depression. Unemployment was estimated to have risen from 1.4% in 1919 to 11.7% in 1921. Immediately when the depression hit, “US officials and employers advised the US government that a massive deportation program was the only option for relieving local and national benevolence agencies of the burden of helping braceros and their families” (Aguila 213). Although it was recorded the federal government deported 1,268 Mexicans during this year, the government told employers “the American government would not help any emigrant who came on their own in search of work and advised employers to send them home” (Aguila 214). Workers and their families were so desperate that the Mexican government set up programs in order to pay to repatriate 150,000 Mexican emigrants.
 The federal government responded to the increased levels of immigration that began during the war years with the official 1954 INS program called Operation Wetback in which an estimated one million persons, the majority of which were Mexican nationals and undocumented immigrants but some were also US citizens, were deported to Mexico.
Documentary film by Vicente Serrano and produced by Mechicano Films called “A Forgotten Injustice” “includes interviews with historians, politicians and survivors. Among them, Former California State Senator Joseph Dunn, John Coatsworth, Dean, School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, Hilda Solis, US Representative, Raymond Rodriguez, Professor of History, emeritus, Long Beach City College, Francisco Balderrama, co-author of “Decade of Betrayal”, Ernesto Nava Villa, Son of Pancho Villa, and John Eastman, Dean, Kennedy Law School at Chapman University.”