Out of the 1.8 million people deported under the "Mexican repatriation," 60% were U.S. citizens—an unconstitutional injustice fundamentally driven by racism and xenophobia.
Back in the 1930s, following the Great Depression, America sunk into one of its darkest episodes when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. Known as the 1930s repatriation, the government took it upon itself to blame Mexicans for all the economic woes in the country and vowed to get rid of them—which led to a massive illegal deportation policy the likes of which the U.S. has not seen since.
The "real" American
Under the Hoover administration, a national program was announced that promised "American jobs for real Americans." That was just another way of saying that only whites should get jobs in the country, since Mexicans didn't count as "real Americans" — even when they were American citizens.
Immigrants and native citizens of Mexican descent were rounded up and taken away based not on their legal status, but merely on the color of their skin. Hundreds of thousands were deported, often without proper legal proceedings.
The program included passing laws that prohibited anyone hiring people of Mexican descent for government jobs—a blatantly racist policy that extended to legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens. Many U.S. companies in line with the policy laid off thousands of Mexican workers, telling them that they would be better off "with their own people."
The La Placita Park Incident
The whole policy was conjured up and implemented in bad faith. An event in Los Angeles stands out, where hundreds of Latinx gathered to relax in La Placita Park, a landmark within the city's Mexican community. Out of nowhere, dozens of armed officers surrounded the park, with a whole operation that included flatbed trucks and several other vehicles bent on capturing all browned-skinned people to send them away from the country.
Officers asked for proof of legal entry and citizenship of the United States, and anyone who couldn't give it on the spot was detained. Many were put on the trucks and sent to the railroad station, where chartered trains were awaiting to take them to Mexico without any legal proceeding. This kind of occurrence took place all across the country, most notably in the American Southwest and Midwest.
A ridiculously high toll
Joseph Dunn, a former state senator, researched this dark chapter of U.S. history in excruciating detail, gathering testimonies and archival evidence from those decades. He found it to be worse than most people realized. As the raids escalated and entire communities were torn apart, the Los Angeles City Council sent memos to the U.S. board of supervisors asking them to stop any further illegal deportation. According to Dunn's research, the board eventually answered: "This isn’t about constitutional validity. It’s about the color of their skin."
The policy broke families apart, cost entire communities their life's possessions, traumatized children who either lost their parents or were forced to move away to a foreign land when they didn't even know Spanish, and even saw family members die as they were trying to return. And all because some Americans didn't like the deported's skin color.
After the dust settled, numbers painted a dire picture. About 1.8 million Mexicans were ultimately deported, around 60% of which were U.S. citizens. That's 1,080,000 illegally-deported Mexican Americans we're talking about.
A racist policy falsely justified
The government used a number of lies to justify their actions and secure public support. They argued that Mexican deportations would create more jobs for "real" Americans, for example, which is a myth that has been debunked over and over even to this day. Foreigners don't really "steal" jobs from Americans, and it's a well-established fact, backed by decades of research, that immigration actually helps a nation's economy.
Hoover's administration also lied when it said that Mexicans were overwhelming welfare offices and draining charities and taking resources away from poor Americans that would otherwise benefit from them. In fact, Mexicans represented less than 10% of the relief recipients in the U.S. at the time.
No matter how you look at it, this was an outright racist attack on a vulnerable community, and the means by which it was carried out were patently unconstitutional. It was all done under the veil of "repatriation," a term that suggested Mexicans were returning to their country voluntarily and were actually being helped by the government to do so. It was, to the eyes of the public, a humanitarian gesture.
“In my investigation, I found that what was called repatriation was actually a coverup and a case of unconstitutional deportation because the majority of Mexicans who were deported were born and raised in the United States,” Dunn said.
In 2006, the U.S. government officially apologized for their treatment of Mexicans during the Depression through the Apology Act, which expressed regret for the illegal deportations. California even passed a law in 2013 that required this shameful episode in American history be taught in the state's public schools. But in spite of these symbolic gestures, America seems to remain all too willing to resort to xenophobia as soon as things get bad.
Back in the 1930s, Mexicans were unfortunate enough to be used as the scapegoat for a bad economy and increasing social tensions—an embodiment of the old song about racism and oppression against the vulnerable groups. Sadly, the American public was satisfied with placing the blame on immigrants, and bought the lies with the enthusiasm of a people too blind to ask more questions than they were comfortable answering.
Nowadays, as Trump ramps up his anti-immigration propaganda, the world looks in fear as history seems on the verge of repeating itself. Trump's base, much like Americans 89 years ago, seem all too willing to buy into the kind of xenophobia that drives injustice forward. We can only hope the rest of American society knows better by now.
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