Jordan Alejandro Rosenberg Cobos August 1, 2021
“This isn’t about constitutional validity. It’s about the color of their skin.” – Los Angeles Board of Supervisors during the Mexican Repatriation
“Forgetting is to Mexicans, what remembering is to Jews.” – John Philip Santo, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation
It is imperative that as a country we remember the widely forgotten Mexican “Repatriation” of the 1930s. During the 1930s, government agencies at all levels within the United States enacted a forced deportation to Mexico policy which affected about 1.8 million people, one-third of all people of Mexican descent within the United States. 60 percent of those deported were natural-born citizens in the United States and as many as 80 percent may have been US citizens. Although initiated by the conservative Republican Herbert Hoover, his liberal Democratic successor Franklin D. Roosevelt continued supporting the program into his second term. This was one of the widest violations of US citizens’ constitutional rights in the history of the United States and was almost entirely forgotten prior to the publication of Decades of Betrayal by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez. After reading their work, California Senator Joseph Dunn led an official State Senate Committee which decided “coerced emigration” and “unconstitutional deportation” were the most appropriate labels to define what is still known (by the few who know it) as the Mexican Repatriation.
I previously wrote how the Mexican American community began with conquest in the 1846-48 Mexican American War: “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Although we are still seen as primarily an immigrant people, Mexican Americans endure ongoing discrimination to this day because our relationship to the government originated in conquest. At the time, many in the US opposed the war because they did not want Mexicans to live in the United States. Legendary abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens labeled Mexicans “a hybrid race of Spanish and Indian origin, ignorant, degraded, demoralized and priest-ridden” in his antiwar rhetoric. Racism was also used to support the war: Texian General Sam Houston stated that “Mexicans are no better than Indians … I see no reason why we should not go on the same course, now, and take their land.” Whiteness was already defined as not Indian and not Black, and the Texan corollary as whiteness as not Mexican soon spread around the country. American meant white, regardless of citizenship or national origin. The US deliberately took only the most lightly populated Mexican territory in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which granted American citizenship to the Mexicans in the Southwest and guaranteed them their property. The Anglo Americans treated this with as much good faith as they did in the treaties with Native Americans. The Californian 1855 Greaser Act stripped the Californio elite of their land and is but one example.
To better understand the largest instance of racialized discrimination against Mexican Americans and Mexicans in US history, we need a bit of background. Although the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo assured the Mexican Americans who had just been conquered of property rights and legal whiteness, this was widely ignored as Anglo-American settlers took land for themselves, created segregated Mexican schools and neighborhoods, limited Mexican labor to low-paying backbreaking jobs, and made it illegal for nonwhite people to serve as witnesses and on juries. The harsh marginalization common to conquered peoples of empire was justified by racism – Mexican families and culture were viewed as backwards and signs such as “No Dogs, Negroes or Mexicans” were not uncommon in the US West.
Yet the US was a powerful allure to emigrants seeking a better standing of living in El Norte, especially as 1890s agribusiness in Texas and California sought migrant Mexican labor. Additionally, due to the decade of upheaval of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, more than ten percent of Mexico’s population now lived in the United States. One of these refugees was my own grandfather. He first moved to Texas and in 1927 to New Mexico, which was the only state in the Southwest whose pre-1848 Hispanic population was not outnumbered by later Mexican immigrants. Many of these Mexican families went to the Midwest to work in the railroad and sugar-beet industry, and Americans were astounded at their presence. Politicians and business leaders such as future Vice President John Nance Garner assured the “homing pigeon” instinct of Mexicans meant 80 percent of them would return to Mexico when their labor was no longer needed.
An estimated 1.42 million Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals were counted as living in the United States in the 1930 US Census, the only one to declare Mexicans as a race. The 1930 Census declared Mexicans as a unique racial category because of the upsurge in both immigration and xenophobia during the 1920s. This also showed the 1848 guarantee of Mexicans as de jure white was now de jure over. Mexicans were classified “all persons born in Mexico or having parents born in Mexico.” For the first time, the United States had a President who was from the Southwest. President Herbert Hoover turned regional political scapegoating of Mexicans to a new scale when he blamed Mexicans in the United States for the Great Depression. Desperate to be reelected, the Californian Hoover promoted a program of “American jobs for real Americans,” and portrayed Mexicans as taking American jobs. City and local governments illegally took immigration policies into their own hands as they grabbed people who looked or sounded Mexican and deported them in trucks over the border. The judicial system and press sided with the deportations, often describing the Mexican and Mexican American population with racist language. Citizenship, due process, length of residency, health and age conditions were irrelevant. Associate Dean of UC Davis Law school Kevin Johnson noted how individuals deported were “denied the right to seek legal counsel and were not accorded due process,” because they “looked Mexican” despite the Fourteenth Amendment’s provisions assuring due process, the equal protection clause and the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure making the entire program “inherently illegal and constitutional.”
With Hoover’s public encouragement, local governments seized control of federal immigration policy. To decrease the labor pool, the ‘repatriated’ people were treated “like animals [who were] put in cattle cars” and shipped out of the country. Many of the ‘repatriated’ Mexican Americans “dreamed of returning long after their parents had already decided to remain in Mexico.” This was especially the case for teenagers and children, who were often teased in Mexico and seen as gringos. Many did not speak Spanish well or at all, which made fitting in even more difficult. Though local control of immigration policy infringed on federal authority, these measures were encouraged by the White House. Many in Mexican American civil society reacted angrily, demanding why Mexicans, some of whose ancestry in the country went back centuries or more, were being singled out rather than recent newcomers from Europe. Some even saw the Depression as a “racist plot to get rid of all Mexicans.”
Hoover’s Secretary of Labor William Doak was the main architect of the program, which was seen as a useful distraction to organized labor opposing the Hoover Administration. Hoover publicly gave full support to Doak and advocated adding “245 more agents to assist in the deportation of 500,00 foreigners.” Those of Mexican descent were forbidden to be employed by the government, even if they were citizens. Large US corporations like Ford Motors, U.S. Steel and the Southern Pacific Railroad “colluded with the government by telling Mexicans they would be better off with their own people, laying off thousands.” After the Los Angeles City Council complained to the LA County Board of Supervisors over the illegality of Los Angeles County assuming immigration authority, the Board replied, “This isn’t about constitutional validity. It’s about the color of their skin.” Officials also lied how Mexicans were draining welfare agencies of money which should go to white citizens. But less than ten percent of those in Los Angeles and Detroit who received state economic relief were of Mexican descent at that time, and these two cities had the largest Mexican American population on welfare. The “once a Mexican, always a Mexican” mentality prevailed, with the notion of “those people would be better off in Mexico with their own kind.” In many communities, no tallies of the exodus were taken. On August 22, 1932 the US Labor Department claimed 2 million Mexicans were “returned home” over the previous 15 months. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Kansas City, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix were major cities involved in the forced mass deportations. The death toll among the repatriates led to intense criticism of the United States in the Mexican press.
The vast majority of Mexicans deported were done for the charge of being in the country illegally. There was a nationwide campaign for Mexican families to “voluntarily” return to Mexico. Many did so as not to face the humiliation of “repatriation.” Entire communities vanished from cities as varied as Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time the Mexican government was also “repatriating” marginalized groups, mainly Chinese Mexicans, and so did not protest the mass deportations from the United States. Many thought the influx could help develop Mexico economically, although the sheer scale of the forced emigration overwhelmed a well-coordinated response to help those afflicted economically. Mexico was a population of only 15 million and so an influx of nearly two million people was a struggle for a country still recovering from the long revolution which only ended a decade before the Depression.
Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Hoover into office but his policy towards Mexican Americans was a rare continuity between the two administrations. Into his second term Roosevelt continued Hoover’s policies of tacit encouragement of ethnic cleansing of Mexican Americans by continuing to allow local governments to illegally conduct immigration deportations. Additionally, Mexican Americans were the only group in the US legally excluded from the New Deal as a legacy of Hoover’s “American jobs for real Americans” policy. But the New Deal did improve the US economy enough that widespread calls to “get rid of the Mexicans” subsided and by 1938 only 12,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were coerced to emigrate. From 1930 to 1939, Mexicans were 46.3% of all people deported from the United States. The Mexican category vanished from the 1940 Census, part of official forgetting of the coerced mass deportation. This created a precedent for the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps the following decade. Former Executive Director of the Federal Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Dale Shimasaki noted both cases involved the widespread “Violation of constitutional rights, loss of property and income, amenities denied and psychological trauma suffered, young men drafted to serve in the army despite the injustices sustained by them and their families, and incarceration of those who violated the legal dictums… based not on any definite need or compelling reason, but on racism, prejudice, hysteria, and a failure of official leadership.”
Unlike the Japanese American internment, the mass of ethnic cleansing still widely known by the inaccurate and racist name of the Mexican Repatriation is widely forgotten both broadly and within the Mexican American community. Many of those who were “repatriated” never talked about the trauma of being kicked out of a country, the difficulties in acclimation to Mexican life, and for some, how they reconciled with the process when they later returned to the Unite d States. But many US-born Mexican Americans could not return north because the burden of proof of citizenship rested only on them. During the 2000s the California legislature attempted to extend the statute of limitations for those seeking to sue the state for redress, but governors of both parties, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed the measures. In 2006 the California legislature passed the Apology Act, expressing regret for how the government treated Mexicans during the Depression. In 2013 a new law required that the mass deportations be taught in California public schools. But the lack of widespread nationwide discussion over what was perhaps the largest ethnic cleansing campaign in the history of the United States is jarring. Especially during an era where Donald Trump rose to power by returning to Hoover’s policy of official demonization of Mexican Americans, it is important to learn this history to ensure it does not happen again. My abuela, whose family have been in what is now the United States since prehistoric times, was fearful in the early days of the Trump Administration that they would repeat the mass forced deportation of US Latinos, regardless of citizenship. While this did not happen, the Trump Administration amplified the mass violation of immigrant rights. Perhaps if the so-called Mexican “Repatriation” was widely known, Trump would not have been as easily able to rise to power based on an elevator pitch of mass renewed ethnic cleansing.
- Foley, 54, 21, 44.
- “1930,” U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/index_of_questions/1930_1.html
- Bernard, Diane, “The time a president deported 1 million Mexican Americans for supposedly stealing U.S. jobs,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/08/13/the-time-a-president-deported-1-million-mexican-americans-for-stealing-u-s-jobs/
- Balderrama and Rodríguez.
Jordan Rosenberg Cobos is a member of the Communications team at IfNotNow. He is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua University Dual Degree Masters Program, where he focused on clean energy and the Americas. He lives in the Los Angeles area.