"His father and oldest sister were farming sugar beets in the fields of Hamilton, Mont., and his mother was cooking tortillas when 6-year-old Ignacio Piña saw plainclothes authorities burst into his home. "They came in with guns and told us to get out," recalls Piña, 81, a retired railroad worker in Bakersfield, Calif., of the 1931 raid. "They didn't let us take anything," not even a trunk that held birth certificates proving that he and his five siblings were U.S.-born citizens. The family was thrown into a jail for 10 days before being sent by train to Mexico. Piña says he spent 16 years of "pure hell" there before acquiring papers of his Utah birth and returning to the USA.
The deportation of Piña's family tells an almost-forgotten story of a 1930s anti-immigrant campaign. Tens of thousands, and possibly more than 400,000, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were pressured — through raids and job denials — to leave the USA during the Depression, according to a USA TODAY review of documents and interviews with historians and deportees. Many, mostly children, were U.S. citizens.
If their tales seem incredible, a newspaper analysis of the history textbooks usedmost in U.S. middle and high schools may explain why: Little has been written about the exodus, often called "the repatriation." That may soon change. As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on bills that would either help illegal workers become legal residents or boost enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, an effort to address deportations that happened 70 years ago has gained traction:
• On Thursday, Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill in the U.S. House that calls for a commission to study the "deportation and coerced emigration" of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The panel would also recommend remedies that could include reparations. "An apology should be made," she says. Co-sponsor Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., says history may repeat itself. He says a new House bill that makes being an illegal immigrant a felony could prompt a "massive deportation of U.S. citizens," many of them U.S.-born children leaving with their parents. "We have safeguards to ensure people aren't deported who shouldn't be," says Jeff Lungren, GOP spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, adding the new House bill retains those safeguards.
• In January, California became the first state to enact a bill that apologizes to Latino families for the 1930s civil rights violations. It declined to approve the sort of reparations the U.S. Congress provided in 1988 for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Democratic state Sen. Joe Dunn, a self-described "Irish white guy from Minnesota" who sponsored the state bill, is now pushing a measure to require students be taught about the 1930s emigration. He says as many as 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were coerced into leaving, 60% of them U.S. citizens.
• In October, a group of deportees and their relatives, known as los repatriados, will host a conference in Detroit on the topic. Organizer Helen Herrada, whose father was deported, has conducted 100 oral histories and produced a documentary. She says many sent to Mexico felt "humiliated" and didn't want to talk about it. "They just don't want it to happen again."
No precise figures exist on how many of those deported in the 1930s were illegal immigrants. Since many of those harassed left on their own, and their journeys were not officially recorded, there are also no exact figures on the total number who departed. At least 345,839 people went to Mexico from 1930 to 1935, with 1931 as the peak year, says a 1936 dispatch from the U.S. Consulate General in Mexico City. "It was a racial removal program," says Mae Ngai, an immigration history expert at the University of Chicago, adding people of Mexican ancestry were targeted. However, Americans in the 1930s were "really hurting," says Otis Graham, history professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. One in four workers were unemployed and many families hungry. Deporting illegal residents was not an "outrageous idea," Graham says. "Don't lose the context."
In the early 1900s, Mexicans poured into the USA, welcomed by U.S. factory and farm owners who needed their labor. Until entry rules tightened in 1924, they simply paid a nickel to cross the border and get visas for legal residency. "The vast
majority were here legally, because it was so easy to enter legally," says Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. They spread out across the nation. They sharecropped in California, Texas and Louisiana, harvested sugar beets in Montana and Minnesota, laid railroad tracks in Kansas, mined coal in Utah and Oklahoma, packed meat in Chicago and assembled cars in Detroit.
By 1930, the U.S. Census counted 1.42 million people of Mexican ancestry, and 805,535 of them were U.S. born, up from 700,541 in 1920. Change came in 1929, as the stock market and U.S. economy crashed. That year, U.S. officials tightened visa rules, reducing legal immigration from Mexico to a trickle. They also discussed what to do with those already in the USA. "The government undertook a program that coerced people to leave," says Layla Razavi, policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). "It was really a hostile environment." She says federal officials in the Hoover administration, like local-level officials, made no distinction between people of Mexican ancestry who were in the USA legally and those who weren't. "The document trail is shocking," says Dunn, whose staff spent two years researching the topic after he read the 1995 book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez.
USA TODAY reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, some provided by Dunn and MALDEF and others found at the National Archives. They cite officials saying the deportations lawfully focused on illegal immigrants while the exodus of legal residents was voluntary. Yet they suggest people of Mexican ancestry faced varying forms of harassment and intimidation:
• Raids. Officials staged well-publicized raids in public places. On Feb. 26, 1931, immigration officials suddenly closed off La Placita, a square in Los Angeles, and questioned the roughly 400 people there about their legal status. The raids "created a climate of fear and anxiety" and prompted many Mexicans to leave voluntarily, says Balderrama, professor of Chicano studies and history at California State University, Los Angeles. In a June 1931 memo to superiors, Walter Carr, Los Angeles district director of immigration, said "thousands upon thousands of Mexican aliens" have been "literally scared out of Southern California." Some of them came from hospitals and needed medical care en route to Mexico, immigrant inspector Harry Yeager wrote in a November 1932 letter.
The Wickersham Commission, an 11-member panel created by President Hoover, said in a May 1931 report that immigration inspectors made "checkups" of boarding houses, restaurants and pool rooms without "warrants of any kind." Labor Secretary William Doak responded that the "checkups" occurred very rarely.
• Jobs withheld. Prodded by labor unions, states and private companies barred non-citizens from some jobs, Balderrama says. "We need their jobs for needy citizens," C.P. Visel of the Los Angeles Citizens Committee for Coordination of Unemployment Relief wrote in a 1931 telegram. In a March 1931 letter to Doak, Visel applauded U.S. officials for the "exodus of aliens deportable and otherwise who have been scared out of the community."
Emilia Castenada, 79, recalls coming home from school in 1935 in Los Angeles and hearing her father say he was being deported because "there was no work for Mexicans." She says her father, a stonemason, was a legal resident who owned property. A U.S. citizen who spoke little Spanish, she left the USA with her brother and father, who was never allowed back. "The jobs were given to the white Americans, not the Mexicans," says Carlos DeAnda Guerra, 77, a retired furniture upholsterer in Carpinteria, Calif. He says his parents entered the USA legally in 1917 but were denied jobs. He, his mother and five U.S.-born siblings were deported in 1931, while his father, who then went into hiding, stayed to pick oranges.
"The slogan has gone out over the city (Los Angeles) and is being adhered to — 'Employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed,' " wrote George Clements, manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's agriculture department, in a memo to his boss Arthur Arnoll. He said the Mexicans' legal status was not a factor: "It is a question of pigment, not a question of citizenship or right."
• Public aid threatened. County welfare offices threatened to withhold the public aid of many Mexican-Americans, Ngai says. Memos show they also offered to pay for trips to Mexico but sometimes failed to provide adequate food. An immigration inspector reported in a November 1932 memo that no provisions were made for 78 children on a train. Their only sustenance: a few ounces of milk daily. Most of those leaving were told they could return to the USA whenever they wanted, wrote Clements in an August 1931 letter. "This is a grave mistake, because it is not the truth." He reported each was given a card that made their return impossible, because it showed they were "county charities." Even those born in the USA, he wrote, wouldn't be able to return unless they had a birth certificate or similar proof.
• Forced departures. Some of the deportees who were moved by train or car had guards to ensure they left the USA and others were sent south on a "closed-body school bus" or "Mexican gun boat," memos show. "Those who tried to say 'no' ended up in the physical deportation category," Dunn says, adding they were taken in squad cars to train stations. Mexican-Americans recall other pressure tactics. Arthur Herrada, 81, a retired Ford engineer in Huron, Ohio, says his father, who was a legal U.S. resident, was threatened with deportation if he didn't join the U.S. Army. His father enlisted.
"It was an injustice that shouldn't have happened," says Jose Lopez, 79, a retired Ford worker in Detroit. He says his father came to the USA legally but couldn't find his papers in 1931 and was deported. To keep the family together, his mother took her six U.S.-born children to Mexico, where they often survived on one meal a day. Lopez welcomes a U.S. apology. So does Guerra, the retired upholsterer, whose voice still cracks with emotion when he talks about how deportation tore his family apart. "I'm very resentful. I don't trust the government at all," says Guerra, who later served in the U.S. military.
Piña says his entire family got typhoid fever in Mexico and his father, who had worked in Utah coal mines, died of black lung disease in 1935. "My mother was left destitute, with six of us, in a country we knew nothing about," he says. They lived in the slums of Mexico City, where his formal education ended in sixth grade. "We were misfits there. We weren't welcome." "The Depression was very bad here. You can imagine how hard it was in Mexico," says Piña, who proudly notes the advanced college degrees of each of his four U.S.-raised sons. "You can't put 16 years of pure hell out of your mind."Let's not forget that for most Americans, our ancestors came to this country as immigrants as well. We should seek to afford the same privileges, opportunities and rights that were given to our families decades or centuries ago. As the Lord God said to the Israelites thousands of years ago,
"The foreigner living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." ~Leviticus 19:34