The Mexican Repatriation was a mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from the United States between 1929 and 1936. Estimates of how many were repatriated range from 400,000 to 2,000,000.:xiii:150 An estimated sixty percent of those deported were birthright citizens of the United States.:330 Because the forced movement was based on race, and frequently ignored citizenship, some scholars argue the process meets modern legal definitions of ethnic cleansing.:6
Widely blamed for exacerbating the overall economic downturn of the Great Depression, Mexicans were further targeted because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios." While supported by the federal government, actual deportations were largely organized and carried out by city and state governments, often with support from local private entities.
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.
With the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War, the Gadsden 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. This land was roughly half of Mexico's pre-war territory.
80,000-100,000 Mexican citizens lived in this territory, and were promised U.S. citizenship under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. About 3,000 decided to move to Mexican territory. Mexicans who remained in the U.S. were considered U.S. citizens and were counted as "white" by the U.S. census until 1930, but a growing influx of immigrants combined with local racism led to the creation of a new category in the census of that year.
Mexican emigration to the United States was not significant until the construction of the railroad network between Mexico and the Southwest, which provided employment and eased transit.: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 1910-1920:8-9 and again during the Cristero War in the late 1920s.:15
American employers often encouraged such emigration. At the onset of the 20th century, "U.S. employers went so far as to make requests 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. This led to the existence of Mexican communities outside of the Southwest, in places like Indiana and Michigan (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. 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.":213 While some sources report up to 150,000 repatriations during this period,: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.:211, 214
Immigration from Mexico was not formally regulated until the Immigration Act of 1917,:213 but enforcement was lax and many exceptions were given for employers.:9, 11, 13 In 1924, with the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol, enforcement became more strict,:11, 13:10-11 and in the late 1920s before the market crash, as part of a general anti-immigrant sentiment, enforcement was again tightened.: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.:24 Prejudice played a factor: Mexicans were stereotyped as "unclean, improvident, indolent, and innately dull",: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".:20
Large numbers of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans were repatriated during the early 1930s. This followed the Wall Street crash of 1929, and resulting growth in nativist sentiment, exemplified by President Herbert Hoover's call for deportation:4, 74-75 and a series on the racial inferiority of Mexicans run by the Saturday Evening Post.:fn 14
Reliable data for the total number repatriated is difficult to come by.:149 Hoffman estimates that over 400,000 Mexicans left the US between 1929 and 1937,:xiii with a peak of 138,000 in 1931. Mexican government sources suggest over 300,000 were repatriated between 1930 and 1933,:fn 20 while Mexican media reported up to 2,000,000 during a similar span.:150 After 1933, repatriation decreased from the 1931 peak, but was over 10,000 in most years until 1940.:49 Research by California state senator Joseph Dunn concluded that 1.8 million had been repatriated.
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. 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.:14
Repatriation was not evenly geographically distributed, with Mexicans living in the US midwest being only 3% of the overall Mexican population in the US but perhaps 10% of repatriates.:379
Even before the Wall Street crash, a variety of "small farmers, progressives, labor unions, eugenicists, and racists" had called for restrictions on Mexican immigration.:26 Their arguments focused primarily on competition for jobs, and the cost of public assistance for indigents.:26:98 These arguments continued after the beginning of the Great Depression.
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".: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.":99 Similarly, Congressman Martin Dies wrote in the Chicago Herald-Examiner that the "large alien population is the basic cause of unemployment.":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.:68 Secretary of Labor William Doak (who at that time oversaw the Border Patrol) "asserted that deportation ... was essential for reducing unemployment".:40
Contemporaries did not always agree with this analysis. 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.:77 Modern economic research has also suggested that the economic impact of deportation was negligible or even negative.
Racism was also a factor.:29:374-377 Mexicans were targeted in part because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios."
Repatriation was largely designed and implemented by the Mexican government with cooperation and assistance by the United States. Mexican land on the U.S. border had become largely abandoned by Mexican citizens, while U.S. citizens were crossing the border to occupy the land in large numbers. Mexico, fearing another occupation and subsequent rebellion by foreign nationals, implemented the repatriation program. Another justification made by Mexican officials for bringing back Mexican nationals was to repatriate large numbers of Mexican citizens with agricultural and industrial expertise learned in the United States.
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".:6
Mexicans were often among the first to be laid off after the crash of 1929.:4 When combined with endemic harassment, many sought to return to Mexico.: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.: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".: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.:8 Mexican Consulates across the country received complaints of "harassment, beatings, heavy-handed tactics, and verbal abuse".:79
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.":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.: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.":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.":76
Beginning in the early 1930s, local governments instigated repatriation programs, often conducted through local welfare bureaus or private charitable agencies.:83 Los Angeles had the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico, 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".:2 This led to complaints and criticisms from both the Mexican Consulate and local Spanish language publication, La Opinión.:59-62:72-74 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.:71:5Jose David Orozco described on his local radio station the "women crying in the streets when not finding their husbands" after deportation sweeps had occurred.":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.":59-64:72
After the peak of the repatriation, Los Angeles again threatened to deport "between 15,000 and 25,000 families" in 1934. While the Mexican government took the threat seriously enough to attempt to prepare for such an influx, the city ultimately did not carry through on their threat.:52-55
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.".:67 Moreover, the deportee was seldom represented by a lawyer, a privilege that could only be granted at the discretion of the immigration officer.:63 This process was likely a violation of US federal due process, equal protection, and Fourth Amendment rights.: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.".: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".:91
Mexican governments had traditionally taken the position that it was "duty-bound" to help repatriate Mexicans who lived in the annexed portions of the southwest United States.:17 However, it did not typically act on this stated policy, because of a lack of resources.:18 Nonetheless, because of the large number of repatriations in the early 1930s, the government was forced to act and provided a variety of services. From July 1930 to June 1931, it underwrote the cost of repatriation for over 90,000 nationals.:24 In some cases, the government attempted to create new villages ("colonias") where repatriates could live, but the vast majority returned to communities in which relatives or friends lived.:26
After the peak of the repatriation had passed, the post-1934 government led by Lázaro Cárdenas continued to speak about encouraging repatriation, but did little to actually encourage that to occur.:185-186
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.
The US federal government has not apologized for the repatriations. In 2006, Congressional representatives Hilda Solis and Luis Gutiérrez introduced a bill calling for a commission to study the issue. Solis also called for an apology.
The state of California apologized in 2005 by passing the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program", which officially recognized the "unconstitutional removal and coerced emigration of United States citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent" and apologized 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. Los Angeles County also issued an apology in 2012, and installed a memorial at the site of one of the city's first immigration raids.
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. In comparison, the same survey found eighteen pages covering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which affected a much smaller number of people. California has passed legislation attempting to address this in future curriculum revisions.
An economics paper that studied the effects of the mass repatriation concluded that
cities with larger repatriation intensity ... performed similarly or worse in terms of native employment and wages, relative to cities which were similar in most labor market characteristics but which experienced small repatriation intensity. ... [O]ur estimates suggest that [repatriation] may have further increased [native] levels of unemployment and depressed their wages.(emphasis added)
The researchers suggest that this occurred in part because non-Mexican natives were paid lower wages after the repatriation, and because some jobs related to Mexican labor (such as managers of agricultural labor) were lost.