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When America Deported Its Own Citizens

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Heading to Mexico "voluntarily" a family stops to fix a tire.

Heading to Mexico "voluntarily" a family stops to fix a tire.

Called “repatriation drives” authorities set up programs during the Great Depression to send Mexicans and people of Mexican heritage to Mexico. The plan was that this would free up jobs for white people.

An estimated 1.8 million people were deported, although the actual numbers are disputed. Former California state Senator Joseph Dunn has estimated that something like 60 percent of the deportees, that is more than a million people, were American citizens.

The Great Depression

The Smithsonian Institution tells us that “In the late 1920s, banks ran amok—abandoning conservative standards to free up capital for risky investments. There were few government regulations to restrain them.”

The Stock Market Crash of October 1929 wiped out the assets of investors as share prices plummeted. Banks collapsed, businesses went bankrupt and the Great Depression followed.

Unemployment hit 25 percent and extreme hardship stalked the land. The Library of Congress points out that Hispanic people suffered more than most: “Along with the job crisis and food shortages that affected all U.S. workers, Mexicans and Mexican Americans had to face an additional threat: deportation.”

Their community was marginalized and barely tolerated only because they were a source of cheap labour. They had few advocates who would speak for them and defend them against the heavy hand of government.

As is often the case in tough times, minority group members get blamed for misfortune. So, Mexicans were accused of taking jobs away from Americans while, paradoxically, also being taken to task for living off social welfare.

Politicians can always be counted on to exploit discontent, so it was easy for them to organize the deportation of Mexican immigrants and people of Mexican heritage. The claim was that this would free up employment under the racist slogan of “American jobs for real Americans.”

It turned out that “real” Americans were reluctant to do the work previously done by Mexicans for the wages on offer.

It turned out that “real” Americans were reluctant to do the work previously done by Mexicans for the wages on offer.

Mexican Deportations Begin

U.S. President Herbert Hoover told Congress to strengthen “our deportation laws so as to more fully rid ourselves of criminal aliens.” A statement that had a familiar ring to it when it was similarly made by a U.S. presidential candidate in 2015,

With the president's stamp of approval, local and state officials went about the business of getting rid of their Mexican residents. A small number were undocumented migrants, but most were legally resident in the U.S. They had been recruited to do the stoop labour of picking crops or other menial labour.

Family units had settled in the United States and had children who became bona fide citizens by virtue of being born on America soil. Officially, the Immigration and Naturalization Service say that during the 1930s “an estimated 400,000 to one million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans left the U.S. for Mexico” (stateoftheunionhistory.com).

The word “voluntary” is used to describe the people going to Mexico, but there was considerable harassment and coercion involved in persuading people it was in their best interest to leave the United States. However, there is a great deal of murkiness in official documentation about how the deportations were carried, and by whom.

A Mexican woman and children on a truck bound for Mexico.

A Mexican woman and children on a truck bound for Mexico.

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The Repatriation Process

Becky Little (history.com) reports that “Local governments and officers with little knowledge of immigrants’ rights simply arrested people and put them on trucks, buses, or trains bound for Mexico, regardless of whether they were documented immigrants or even native-born citizens.” Sometimes federal agents supervised what the local authorities were doing but that didn't put a crimp in what was a gross violation of human rights.

Raids were made in Hispanic neighbourhoods and people were indiscriminately scooped up. In 1931, police arrested about 400 people when they swooped on a street in Los Angeles. They were bundled into waiting vans and sent to Mexico.

They even rooted people out of hospitals. Here's Becky Little again: “One of the patients was a woman with leprosy who was driven just over the border and left in Mexicali, Mexico. Others had tuberculosis, paralysis, mental illness, or problems related to old age, but that didn’t stop orderlies from carrying them out of medical institutions and sending them out of the country.”

To nudge Hispanics into moving some companies such as Ford and U.S. Steel fired their Mexican employees and in numerous jurisdictions they were barred from government jobs.

What the authorities were doing was illegal. Kevin R. Johnson, is with the faculty at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. He says “One of the issues is the ‘repatriation’ took place without any legal protections in place or any kind of due process.”

Given the heavy handed methods adopted by authorities it's not surprising that thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans “voluntarily” went to live in Mexico.

The Effects of Mexican Repatriation

The scheme was justified on the grounds that it would improve employment opportunities for “real” Americans (read white). It didn't.

The non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research studied the effects of the repatriation drives. It concluded in its 2017 report that “we find that repatriation of Mexicans was associated with small decreases in native employment and increases in native unemployment.”

The researchers add there is no support for “the claim that repatriations had any expansionary effects on native employment, but suggest instead that they had no effect on, or possibly depressed, their employment and wages.”

In addition, deportees took a lot of American money back to Mexico. “In 1931, California reported that repatriated Mexicans withdrew nearly seven million dollars from U.S. Banks” (Duke University). That would be worth $128 million today.

California alone accounted for about 400,000 of the deportations, which moved state Senator Joseph Dunn to work on an official apology. The 2005 statement said the state apologized “for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights committed during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Secretary of Labor William N. Doak was the man put in charge of the repatriation drive by President Herbert Hoover. Doak said the plan was aimed at “ridding the nation of the enemy in our midst.”
  • Deportations continued throughout the 1930s, but when America entered the Second World War in 1941, everything changed. Suddenly, Mexican workers were valuable again. Under the Bracero Program, which lasted until 1964, 4.6 million Mexicans were recruited to work temporarily in factories, railroads, and farms.
  • While large numbers of Mexicans entered the United States legally under the Bracero Program many others crossed the border illegally. So, Operation Wetback was launched in 1954 to round up and deport 1.3 million illegal Mexican migrants.

Sources

  • “The Great Depression.” National Museum of American History, undated.
  • “Depression and the Struggle for Survival.” Library of Congress, undated.
  • “The U.S. Deported a Million of Its Own Citizens to Mexico During the Great Depression.” Becky Little, history.com, July 12, 2019.
  • “The Employment Effects of Mexican Repatriations: Evidence from the 1930's.” Jongkwan Lee, Giovanni, and Peri Vasil Yasenov, National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2017.
  • “Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s” (book review). J. Burton Kirkwood, Hispanic American Historical Review, November 1, 1997.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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