Mexican Repatriation

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The Mexican Repatriation was a mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from the United States between 1929 and 1936.[1][2] Estimates of how many were repatriated range from 500,000 to 2,000,000,[3][4] of whom perhaps 60% were US citizens by birth.[4]:330

Widely blamed for exacerbating the overall economic downturn,[5] Mexicans were further targeted because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios."[6]:29 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]

Former Mexican territory in the United States.

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]

Map of modern (c. 2013) Mexican-American population density in the US, with former Mexican border superimposed in red.

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 emigration was not significant until the construction of the railroad network between Mexico and the Southwest, which both provided employment and eased transit.[3]:6–7 Increasing demands for agricultural labor, and the violence and economic disruption of the Mexican Revolution, also caused many to flee Mexico during the years of 1910-1920[3]:8–9 and again during the Cristero War in the late 1920s.[4]:15

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).

These early waves of immigration also led to 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 regulated until the Immigration Act of 1917,[13]:213 but enforcement was lax and many exceptions were given for employers.[3]:9, 11, 13 In 1924, with the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol, enforcement became more strict,[3]:11, 13 [4]:10–11 and in the late 1920s before the market crash, as part of a general anti-immigrant sentiment, enforcement was again tightened.[3]:30–33

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.[4]:24 Prejudice played a factor: Mexicans were stereotyped as "unclean, improvident, indolent, and innately dull",[3]:23 so many Mexicans did not apply for citizenship because they "knew that if [they] became a citizen [they] would still be, in the eyes of the Anglos, a Mexican".[3]: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.[4]: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.[6]:27–28 [14]:fn 14 Local media and political groups often echoed these calls.[citation needed]

As a result of these political and economic pressures, large numbers of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans were repatriated during the early 1930s.[citation needed]

Scope of repatriation[edit]

Reliable data for the total number repatriated is difficult to come by.[13][16][4]: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.[4]:150

This constituted a significant portion of the Mexican population in the US. By one estimate, 1/5th of Mexicans in California were repatriated by 1932, and 1/3rd of all Mexicans in the US between 1931 and 1934.[6] The 1930 Census reported 1.3 million Mexicans in the US, but this number is not believed to be reliable, because some repatriations had already begun, illegal immigrants were not counted, and the Census attempted to use racial concepts that did not map to how many Spanish-speakers in the Southwest defined their own identities.[3]:14

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

Besides coverage in local newspapers and radio, deportation was frequent enough that it was reflected in the lyrics of Mexican popular music.[17]

Justifications for repatriation[edit]

Even before the Wall Street crash, a variety of "small farmers, progressives, labor unions, eugenicists, and racists" called for restrictions on Mexican immigration.[3]:26 Their arguments focused primarily on competition for jobs, and the cost of public assistance for indigents.[3]:26[4]:98Racism was also a factor.[14]:374–377[3]:29

For example, in Los Angeles, C.P. Visel, the spokesman for Los Angeles Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief (LACCCU), wrote to the federal government that deportation was necessary because "[w]e need their jobs for needy citizens".[4]: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."[4]:99 Similarly, Congressman Martin Dies wrote in the Chicago Herald-Examiner that the "large alien population is the basic cause of unemployment."[14]:377 Independent groups such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the National Club of America for Americans also 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.[4]:68

This rationale could be incoherent or self-defeating. For example, in a study of El Paso, Texas, the National Catholic Welfare Conference estimated that deportation of parents who were non-citizens would cost more than roundup and deportation, because previously ineligible remaining children and wives would become eligible for welfare.[4]:77 At the same time, Secretary of Labor William Doak (who at that time oversaw the Border Patrol) "asserted that deportation... was essential for reducing unemployment... while many of his targets were jobless and on relief".[3]:40

Mechanisms of repatriation[edit]

In response to these justifications, the federal government, in coordination with local governments, took steps to remove Mexicans. These actions were a combination of federal actions that created a "climate of fear", along with local activities that encouraged repatriation through a combination of "lure, persuasion, and coercion".[15]:6

Early "voluntary" repatriation[edit]

Mexicans were often among the first to be laid off after the crash of 1929.[15]:4 When combined with endemic harassment, many sought to return to Mexico.[14]:372–377 For example, in 1931 in Gary, Indiana, a number of people sought funding to return to Mexico, or took advantage of reduced-rate train tickets.[14]:380–381 By 1932, such repatriation was no longer voluntary, as local governments and aid agencies in Gary began to use "repressive measures ... to force the return of reluctant voyagers".[14]:384 Similarly, in Detroit, by 1932 one Mexican national reported to the local consul that police had "dragged" him to the train station against his will, after he had proven his residency the previous year.[14]:8 Mexican Consulates across the country received complaints of "harassment, beatings, heavy-handed tactics, and verbal abuse".[4]:79

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."[4]: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.[4]:89–91

President Hoover publicly endorsed Secretary of Labor Doak and his campaign to add "245 more agents to assist in the deportation of 500,000 foreigners."[4]:75 Doak’s 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."[4]: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.[citation needed]

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]

Repatriation in Los Angeles[edit]

Beginning in the early 1930s, local governments instigated repatriation programs, often conducted through local welfare bureaus or private charitable agencies.[3]:83[14] Los Angeles had the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico,[2] and had a typical deportation approach, with a plan for "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".[4]:2 This led to complaints and criticisms from both the Mexican Consulate and local Spanish language publication, La Opinión.[4][page needed] The raids were significant in scope, assuming "the logistics of full-scale paramilitary operations", with cooperation from Federal officials, country deputy sheriffs, and city police, who would raid public places, who were then "herded" onto trains or buses.[4]:71[2]:5 Tactics included arbitrary arrests without checking for legal documentation.[3] 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."[4]:70

Several Los Angeles raids included roundups of hundreds of Mexicans, with immigration agents and deputies blocked off all exits to the Mexican neighborhood in East LA, riding "around the neighborhood with their sirens wailing and advising people to surrender themselves to the authorities."[4]:72 [3]

Legal process of deportations[edit]

Once apprehended, requesting a hearing was a possibility, but 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.".[4]:67 Moreover, the deportee was seldom represented by a lawyer, a privilege that could only be granted at the discretion of the immigration officer.[4][page needed] This process was likely a violation of US federal due process, equal protection, and Fourth Amendment rights.[2]:9,12

If no hearing was requested, the second option of those apprehended was to voluntarily deport themselves from the US. In theory, this 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.".[4]:79 However, many were misled, and on departure, given a "stamp on their card [which showed] that they have been county charities". This meant that they would be denied readmission, since they would be "liable to become a public charge".[3]:91

Many were also threatened by county officials who 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.[4][page needed] In this way, individuals were simultaneously threatened and enticed by the offer for a free trip to Mexico.[4][page needed]

Modern interpretation and awareness[edit]

The US 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] The County of Los Angeles also issued an apology in 2012.[18]

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.[19] In comparison, the same survey found eighteen pages covering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II,[19] which affected a much smaller number of people.[2] California has passed legislation attempting to address this in future curriculum revisions.[20][21]

Recent economic research concludes that the deportation decreased employment and increased unemployment.[22]

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.[23]

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 d e f 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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Hoffman, Abraham (1974-01-01). Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. VNR AG. ISBN 9780816503667. 
  4. ^ 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 Balderrama, Francisco E.; Rodriguez, Raymond (2006-01-01). Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. UNM Press. ISBN 9780826339737. 
  5. ^ Navarro, Sharon Ann; Mejia, Armando Xavier (2004-01-01). Latino Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 23. ISBN 9781851095230. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  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 d e f g h i j 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. ISSN 0030-8684. doi:10.2307/3637683. 
  15. ^ a b c Valdés, Dennis Nodín (1988-01-01). "Mexican Revolutionary Nationalism and Repatriation during the Great Depression". Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. 4 (1): 1–23. ISSN 0742-9797. doi:10.2307/1052051. 
  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. ISSN 0043-3810. doi:10.2307/966864. 
  17. ^ Salinas, Michelle (2016). "Singing the Great Depression: Mexican and Mexican American Perspectives Through Corridos (1929-1949)". eScholarship. UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 
  18. ^ Villacorte, Christina (2012-02-21). "L.A. County Board of Supervisors to issue formal apology over Mexican Repatriation". Los Angeles Daily News. Retrieved 2017-02-21. 
  19. ^ a b Hunt, Kasie (2006-04-05), "Some stories hard to get in history books", USA Today 
  20. ^ McGreevy, Patrick; Grad, Shelby (2015-10-01). "California law seeks history of Mexican deportations in textbooks". LA Times. Retrieved 2017-02-21. 
  21. ^ "Bill Text - AB-146 Pupil instruction: social sciences: deportations to Mexico.". California Legislative Information. Retrieved 2017-02-21. 
  22. ^ Lee, Jongkwan; Peri, Giovanni; Yasenov, Vasil (September 2017). "The Employment Effects of Mexican Repatriations: Evidence from the 1930's". National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. doi:10.3386/w23885. 
  23. ^ Texas State Historical Association. "Operation Wetback". Retrieved May 24, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

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