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Hey, I've Got an Idea: Ship Them All Back To Mexico

Families like this were often split apart by the deportation campaign.

Now that we at U.S. Trek have been writing about the twentieth century for a while, I feel like I'm seeing certain patterns again and again. One of those patterns hasn't been too hard to figure out: immigrants who don't have white skin have it especially rough in their new land. Pattern number two is pretty clear, as well: people love immigrants when the economy is good. But when the economy is bad, immigrants become scapegoats whom people blame for everything.

We've seen what happened to the Chinese in the 1850s. During the Gold Rush, they were welcomed, but when a recession hit, they were persecuted and blamed for taking jobs away from "real" (read: white) Americans.

Doing research in Los Angeles, I discovered that in the 1930s, that blame was directed at a different group: Mexicans. The history books I read in high school told me a lot about how President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped the country survive the Great Depression. But I had never learned about the other "solution" the government came up with for America's unemployment problems: deport all people of Mexican descent back to Mexico.

From 1900-1930, over one million Mexicans crossed the border to work in the United States. After the Mexican Revolution, which began 1910, many people went north to escape the poverty, instability and violence that gripped Mexico. Curiously, while Asian and Southern European immigrants were increasingly excluded through legislation such as the 1924 National Origins Act, Mexican immigrants were not causing much concern. Unlike today's heavily patrolled border the Mexican-American border of the early 1900s was open to any Mexicans who passed checks on infectious diseases. Most Mexicans considered crossing the border a visit to their own backyard, since much of the land on the other side, including California and Texas, used to be theirs.


Mmm: home! / no place to go

This open attitude towards Mexicans was based not on a belief in equality, but rather on economic need. Mexicans were considered second-class citizens, just like the Chinese, Italians, and others. One American professor called Mexicans "Human swine. Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions." The U.S. government tolerated Mexicans. People believed that Mexicans, rather than seeking to become citizens, would return to Mexico after their "visits."" A 1911 Congressional report said, "Mexicans are not easily assimilated, but this is of no very great importance, as most of them return to their native land.""

From 1900-1930, huge checkpoints like these did not exist.
Oddly enough, Mexicans benefited from the restrictions imposed on the Chinese, Japanese and European immigrants. Mexicans replaced other immigrants on the railroads and in the fields; they were not subject to the literacy tests other immigrants had to take. But Mexicans were limited to certain jobs. Schools were segregated, and many leaders doubted Mexicans' ability to learn. Some openly admitted they were worried about losing their cheap labor if Mexicans became educated. Said one Texas grower, "Educating the Mexican is educating him away from the dirt.He learns English and wants to be the boss."

In 1929, as the nation plunged into its worst economic crisis ever, anti-Mexican sentiment popped up everywhere. President Herbert Hoover blamed the Mexicans as one cause of the Depression, claiming they took jobs away from Americans. With the president's backing, cities began a massive campaign to deport and repatriate Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, back to Mexico. It was ironic that Hoover would be so gung-ho about the program. As the nation's Food Administrator, he had recruited Mexican laborers to fill farm production shortages. Now, he accused Mexicans of draining the economy by using social services. By stereotyping all Mexican immigrants as illegals, Hoover encouraged Americans to view Mexicans as a homogenous, alien group.

Becky stands beneath the Mexican flag. Many Mexicans sent money home during the Depression.
Los Angeles during the Depression had the highest concentration of Mexican immigrants in the nation, and it was particularly caught up in the deportation scheme. Before the 1930s, L.A. businesses couldn't get enough of cheap Mexican labor. Now, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce secretary wrote,"The slogan has gone out over the city and is being adhered to -- employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed; get the Mexican back into Mexico regardless by what means."

The Border Patrol, a group formed in 1925, began stepping up its activities to prevent Mexicans from crossing into the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration formed a special "Mexican Bureau." Many local business and civic groups advocated "voluntary" deportation, since forcing all Mexicans back to Mexico would be costly and complicated. Newspapers pushed people to leave voluntarily by hinting that anyone of Mexican descent, whether a U.S. citizen or not, could be shipped forcibly to Mexico. In other words, they suggested that it would be easier on Mexicans if they left sooner rather than later. By the end of 1931, more Mexicans were leaving the U.S. than entering.

Irene visits Olvera Street, a historic Mexican street in LA since the early 1930s
Hundreds of Mexicans in Los Angeles, without legal due process, were served with warrants and ordered to leave. Civil liberties groups protested. In Detroit during the 1930s, 12,000 of the 15,000 Mexicans who left departed as a result of deportation pressure from the local and city governments. Current residents of Detroit, remembering the ordeal, call the 1930s "la Crisis." During la Crisis, social service agents would show up on Mexicans' doorsteps and order them to leave. Many abandoned their homes and all their possessions. Families were ruthlessly split apart. Some parents were forced to leave, while their U.S.-born children remained behind. American-born husbands had to watch their Mexican wives board trains for Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most important inspirational figures in Mexican culture.
Many Mexicans left on their own, fearing the government and wanting to escape the racism. 60,000 Mexicans left Los Angeles. Texas lost over half its Mexican residents. By 1940, the Mexican population in the U.S. was half of what it had been in 1930. Estimates of the total number of Mexicans repatriated range from 600,000 to 1.6 million. When they arrived back in Mexico, repatriated Mexicans encountered conditions even worse than what they had left. They were often put on un-farmable land, doomed to poverty. The Mexican government expressed resentment at having so many people dumped within its borders.

With the entry of the U.S. into World War II, the deportation campaign came to an end. Once again, the U.S. needed Mexicans to work in factories and in the fields. But I have a feeling that a future dispatch will show how this pattern repeats itself: America turns against the Mexicans when she needs to. Stay tuned.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Burn that book! It's on the best-seller list
Making A Difference - A little fresh paint can go a long way
Stephen - For Rent: 1 cardboard box, doubles as an apartment during hard times
Team - So you served your country? So what?
Daphne - The nation goes belly up on Black Tuesday