Mexican Repatriation

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The Mexican Repatriation (a.k.a. Repatriation Movement) refers to the mass deportation of American citizens of Mexican origin, as well as Mexican immigrants, from the United States to Mexico between 1929 and 1936.[1][2] American federal and state authorities scapegoated Mexicans for the overall economic downturn,[3] and targeted Mexicans because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios."[4]:29

Studies have provided conflicting numbers for how many people were repatriated, but estimates range from 500,000 to 2,000,000,[5][6] of whom 60% were US-born citizens.[6]:330 Because the forced movement was based on race, and ignored citizenship, one scholar has argued that the process meets modern standards for ethnic cleansing.[2]:6

In 2005, the State of California passed the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program", apologizing for the state government's role in the repatriation.[7][8]

Mexican-American migration before the Great Depression[edit]

At the beginning of the Great Depression, there were two primary sources of US residents of Mexican descent: territorial changes after the Mexican-American War, and migration.

Cession of Mexican territory[edit]

Former Mexican territory in the United States.

With the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War, the Gadsen Purchase, and the annexation of the Republic of Texas, much of the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming, were ceded to the United States.[1] This land was 45% of Mexico's pre-war territory.[9]

80-100,000 Mexican citizens lived in this territory, and were promised U.S. citizenship under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.[1][10] About 3,000 of the total 80,000 decided to move to Mexican territory.[1] Mexicans who remained in the U.S. were considered U.S. citizens and counted as white on the U.S. census until 1930; however, the majority European population often treated them as foreigners.[11]

By one estimate, in 1900, about 500,000 people of Mexican ancestry lived in the US, of whom 400,000 had been born in the US.[12]

Emigration from Mexico[edit]

Mexican immigrants had come and gone to the US in several waves since the end of the Mexican-American War and the annexation of the former Mexican territories, including waves related to theCalifornia Gold Rush of 1849 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[citation needed] In addition, the violence and economic disruption of the Mexican Revolution caused many to flee Mexico during the years of 1910-1920.[5]

American employers often encouraged such emigration. At the onset of the 20th century, “U.S. 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 U.S.” in order to recruit Mexican labor for jobs in industry, railroads, meatpacking, steel mills, and agriculture.[13] This led to the existence of Mexican communities outside of the Southwest, in places like Indiana[14] and Michigan[15] (though the vast majority of Mexicans in the US remained in the Southwest).

Previous waves of immigration had also led to previous waves of repatriation, generally tied to economic downturns. During the depression of 1907, the Mexican government allocated funds to repatriate some Mexicans living in the United States.[1] Similarly, in the depression of 1920-21, the US government was advised to deport Mexicans to "relieve ... benevolence agencies of the burden of helping braceros and their families."[13]:213 While some sources report up to 150,000 repatriations during this period,[13]:216 Mexican and US records conflict as to whether emigration from the US to Mexico increased in 1921, and only a limited number of formal deportations were recorded.[13] :211, 214

U.S. citizenship and immigration law[edit]

Immigration from Mexico was not formally restricted until the Immigration Act of 1917[13]:213, but enforcement was lax and many exceptions were given for employers.[5]:9, 11, 13 It was not until 1924, with the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol, that enforcement became more strict.[5]:11, 13 [6]:10-11

Due to the lax immigration enforcement, and porousness of the border, many citizens, legal residents, and immigrants did not have the official documentation proving their citizenship, had lost their documents, or just never applied for citizenship.[6]:24 In addition, racism played a factor. For many Mexicans, “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”.[5]:20

Repatriation of the early 1930s[edit]

Following the Wall Street crash of 1929 President Herbert Hoover pressed for deportation of Mexicans, in order to respond to criticisms from organized labor.[6]:4, 74-75 This built on existing nativist sentiment, exemplified by a series run on the racial inferiority of Mexicans run by the Saturday Evening Post.[4]:27-28 [14]:fn 14 Local media and political groups often echoed these calls.

As a result of these political and economic pressures, large numbers of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans were repatriated during the early 1930s. Reliable data for the total number repatriated is difficult to come by.[13][16][6]:149 Hoffman estimates that over 400,000 Mexicans left the US between 1929 and 1937, with a peak of 138,000 in 1931.[16] Mexican government sources suggest over 300,000 were repatriated between 1930 and 1933,[13]:fn 20 while Mexican media reported up to 2,000,000 during a similar span.[6]:150

This constituted a significant portion of the Mexican population in the US, with one estimate that 1/5th of Mexicans in California were repatriated by 1932, and 1/3rd of all Mexicans in the US between 1931 and 1934.[4]

Repatriation was not evenly geographically distributed, with midwestern Mexicans being only 3% of the overall US Mexican population but perhaps 10% of repatriates.[14]:379

Justifications for repatriation[edit]

According to Los Angeles, California county officials, returning immigrants to their country of origin would save the city money by reducing the number of needy families using federal welfare funds and free up jobs for those perceived as "Real Americans." A telegram to the U.S. Government Coordinator of Unemployment Relief sent by C.P. Visel, the spokesman for Los Angeles Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief (LACCCU), wrote of the “deportable aliens” in Los Angeles 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”.[6]:67 A member of the Los Angeles County board of Supervisors, H.M. Blaine, is recorded as saying "the majority of the Mexicans in the Los Angeles Colonia were either on relief or were public charges.”[6]:99 While such statistics for Los Angeles in particular are not currently known, sources at the time indicated that, nationwide, less than 10 percent of people on welfare were Mexican or of Mexican descent.[6]:99 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 would solve their problems.[6]: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 U.S. citizens and the latter group urged Americans to pressure the government into deporting Mexicans.[6]:68

An analysis of a study conducted during the 1930s on deportation costs questions the then prevailing argument that deporting immigrants would reduce city costs overall. “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.”[6]:77

Federal government action[edit]

As the effects of the Great Depression worsened and affected larger numbers 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.”[6]:89 The federal government imposed 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.[6]:89-91

President Hoover 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.”[6]:75 Doak’s endeavors to expel Mexican immigrants have been described as unscrupulous.[citation needed] His measures included monitoring labor protests or farm strikes and labeling protesters 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.”[6]: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 Los Angeles county’s Unemployment Relief Coordinator Visel’s telegram, the federal government sent supervisors of the Bureau of Immigration, Walter E. Carr and W.F. Watkins (both at different times) to Los Angeles to help conduct deportations in the Los Angeles area.[citation needed]

Local actions in Los Angeles[edit]

“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.”[5]: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.[5] As a result, the county decided that their campaign would be called “repatriation,” a euphemism for deportation.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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”.[6]:2 Watkins, Supervisor of the Bureau of Immigration, and his agents were responsible for many mass raids and deportations. Local government was responsible for the media attention that was given to these raids in order to “scarehead” immigrants, specifically Mexicans. There were also repeated press releases from LA city officials that asserted Mexicans were not being targeted.[citation needed] Actions taken by immigration officials proved otherwise, provoking many vociferous complaints and criticisms from the Mexican Consulate and Spanish language publication, La Opinión.[6][page needed]

Raids and legal proceedings[edit]

The streets of East Los Angeles, a heavily populated Mexican area, were deserted only after the first few days that raids had been conducted.[5] 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.”[6]:71 Sheriff Traeger and his deputies' tactics included large round ups of Mexicans who were arbitrarily arrested and taken to jail without checking whether or not the people were carrying legal documentation.[5] 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.”[6]:70 Mexican Consulates across the country were receiving complaints of “harassment, beatings, heavy-handed tactics, and verbal abuse”.[6]:79

These raids include the San Fernando Raid, La Placita Raid, and El Monte Raid. The San Fernando Raid took place on Ash Wednesday 1931. Immigration agents and deputies blocked off all exits to the Mexican neighborhood and “rode around the neighborhood with their sirens wailing and advising people to surrender themselves to the authorities.”[6]:72 The 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.[6][page needed] In the El Monte Raid, 300 people were stopped and questioned, 13 were jailed, and of the 13 jailed, 12 were Mexican.[5]

Most people were unconstitutionally denied their legal rights of due process and equal protection under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. When it came to federal deportation proceedings, Mexicans, once apprehended, had two options: they could either ask for a hearing or “voluntarily” return to their native country. The benefit of 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. If the immigrant lost the hearing, they would be barred from ever returning to the United States. Although requesting a hearing was a possibility, immigration officers rarely informed individuals of their rights, and the hearings were “official but informal,” in that immigration inspectors “acted as interpreter, accuser, judge, and jury.”.[6]:67 Moreover, the deportee was seldom represented by a lawyer, a privilege that could only be granted at the discretion of the immigration officer.[6][page needed] 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.”.[6]: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.”[5]: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.[6][page needed] 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.[6][page needed]

Modern interpretation and awareness[edit]

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. Solis also called for an apology.[8]

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." However, no reparations for the victims were approved.[8][7]

Repatriation is not widely discussed in U.S. history textbooks. In a 2006 survey of the nine most commonly used American history textbooks in the United States, four did not mention the topic, and only one devoted more than half a page to the topic. In total, they devoted four pages to the repatriation.[17] In comparison, the same survey found eighteen pages covering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II,[17] which was also a gross violation of the rights of citizens but affected a much smaller number of people.[2]

Subsequent deportations[edit]

The federal government responded to the increased levels of immigration that began during World War II (partly due to increased demand for agricultural labor) with the official 1954 INS program called Operation Wetback, in which an estimated one million persons, the majority of whom were Mexican nationals and illegal immigrants but some were also U.S. citizens, were deported to Mexico.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Rosales, F. Arturo (2007-01-01). "Repatriation of Mexicans from the US". In Soto, Lourdes Diaz. The Praeger Handbook of Latino Education in the U.S. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 400–403. ISBN 9780313338304. 
  2. ^ a b c Johnson, Kevin (Fall 2005). "The Forgotten Repatriation of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the War on Terror". 26 (1). Davis, California: Pace Law Review. 
  3. ^ Navarro, Sharon Ann; Mejia, Armando Xavier (2004-01-01). Latino Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 23. ISBN 9781851095230. 
  4. ^ a b c Ruiz, Vicki L. (1998). Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513099-5. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hoffman, Abraham (1974-01-01). Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. VNR AG. ISBN 9780816503667. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Balderrama, Francisco E.; Rodriguez, Raymond (2006-01-01). Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. UNM Press. ISBN 9780826339737. 
  7. ^ a b "California Government Code: Mexican Repatriation [8720 - 8723]". California Legislative Information. Retrieved 2017-02-19. 
  8. ^ a b c Koch, Wendy (2006-04-05). "U.S. urged to apologize for 1930s deportations". USA Today. Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  9. ^ "Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)". Our Documents. The National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved May 24, 2011. 
  10. ^ Castillo, Richard Griswold del (1992-09-01). "Chapter 5: Citizenship and Property Rights". The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 9780806124780. 
  11. ^ Rodriguez, Clara E. (2000). Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814775479. 
  12. ^ Allan Englekirk. "Mexican Americans". Retrieved May 24, 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Aguila, Jamie R. (March 2007). "Mexican/U.S. Immigration Policy Prior to the Great Depression". The Journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Diplomatic History. 31: 207–225. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.2007.00612.x. (subscription required (help)). 
  14. ^ a b c Betten, Neil; Mohl, Raymond A. (1973-08-01). "From Discrimination to Repatriation: Mexican Life in Gary, Indiana, during the Great Depression". Pacific Historical Review. 42 (3): 370–388. doi:10.2307/3637683. ISSN 0030-8684. 
  15. ^ Valdés, Dennis Nodín (1988-01-01). "Mexican Revolutionary Nationalism and Repatriation during the Great Depression". Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. 4 (1): 1–23. doi:10.2307/1052051. ISSN 0742-9797. 
  16. ^ a b Hoffman, Abraham (1972-10-01). "Mexican Repatriation Statistics: Some Suggested Alternatives to Carey McWilliams" (PDF). The Western Historical Quarterly. 3 (4): 399. doi:10.2307/966864. ISSN 0043-3810. 
  17. ^ a b Hunt, Kasie (2006-04-05), "Some stories hard to get in history books", USA Today 
  18. ^ Texas State Historical Association. "Operation Wetback". Retrieved May 24, 2011. 

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