<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Mexican Repatriation: History

History 1 2 3 next


As evidenced by the overwhelming amount of archival material preserved at the Laguna Hills Branch of the National Archives, significant research has been done over the last few decades on the history of Chinese Exclusion and Japanese Internment. But as the historical understanding of Chinese and Japanese experiences in late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States history has grown, research on the experiences of Mexican Americans during the repatriation of the 1930s has remained conspicuously limited. Surprisingly little has been written on the fifteen-year period from 1929 to 1944 when over two million people of Mexican descent - 1.2 million of whom were born in the United States - were repatriated to Mexico. In California alone, approximately 400,000 U.S. citizens and legal residents were forced south of the border.1 It is surprising to the modern historian that the massive raids that resulted in the clandestine and illegal removal of thousands of U.S. citizens remains such an obscured part of American history.

Over the past decade there have been efforts by a handful of historians to understand Mexican Repatriation, especially as immigration has returned to the forefront of domestic debate. Most notable of these examinations is the work of Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, whose 1995 book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s has offered the first comprehensive analysis of repatriation and its affects in both the United States and Mexico.

The complex and nuanced nature of Mexican Repatriation history requires several hundred pages of text to examine fully, and this website is in no way an attempt to create a comprehensive narrative of its history as it existed throughout the United States. Rather this website is an examination of the situation in Los Angeles and how it fit into the larger repatriation narrative. Specifically, this website focuses its attention on the motives for repatriation, and the rhetoric employed that resulted in the departure of nearly half-a-million Californians.

Competition For Employment

As unemployment ravaged the nation at the dawn of the 1930s, anti-immigration attitudes arose within the government and the public from the belief that aliens were stealing American jobs. As a result of concerted efforts by federal, local, and state governments to remove them from jobs desired for whites, Mexican Americans found themselves targeted for deportation, prohibited from employment, and labeled as unemployed indigents that burdened tax-paying citizens.

Prior to the Great Depression, Mexicans had been recruited to work in the United States by American businesses because they offered cheap labor.2 They worked in railroad construction, steel mining, ranching, and farming. Despite their reputation as "hardworking," Mexican Americans were relegated to second-class citizenship; a sentiment that made them easy targets as scapegoats during the Great Depression. One of the ironies of Mexican Repatriation was that many of those who were repatriated had been recruited to work in the United States when the industrial revolution hit full swing.3

Mexican Immigration Records- United States Congress Report

In September 1930, John R. Quinn, Supervisor from the Fourth District of Los Angeles (and former National Commander of the American Legion) proposed legislation that would remove more than 2.5 million "illegal aliens" from the United States, stating that "if we were rid of the aliens who have entered this country illegally since 1921, stealing in as burglars might enter our homes, our present employment problem would shrink to the proportions of a relatively flat spot in business."4 Quinn's exaggerated rhetoric failed to recognize the immigration history in the decades preceding the Depression when informal immigration laws created a fluid immigration pattern for Mexican immigrants.5

Supervisor Quinn argued that his proposed legislation would be one of the "first steps toward solving the unemployment problem in Los Angeles [sic] county."6 With unemployment at 2.5 million, Quinn reasoned that removing the 2.5 million "illegal" aliens would nececssarily result in complete employment of all native-born citizens. During the presention of his proposed legislation, Supervisor Quinn asked that Federal and State laws be examined "with a view for furthering legislation to rid the country of aliens" in the country illegally. He further proposed legislation that would bar illegal aliens from employment and establishing residence.7

Also in 1930, the San Diego County Supervisors declared that Mexicans would be barred from working on public projects and that the "county [would] issue no more contracts unless the contractor bind[ed] himself to employ only local labor."8 San Diego County Supervisor Edgar F. Hastings, in his press release, stated that "[w]e should try to feed our own rather than give our wages to aliens."9 It was also noted in the county's decision that the city of San Diego had already undertaken similar action.
Outside Southern California, similar rhetoric was being used to propose legislation that would bar the employment of Mexican immigrants. In April 1930, Senator Allen of Kansas introduced the Harris Mexican Exclusion Bill petitioning Congress to act in preventing Mexicans from "obtaining places of employment which should otherwise be given to citizens of the United States."10 Senator Allen's proposed legislation would limit immigration from Mexico to relatives of citizens and those needed in the U.S. to perform essential agricultural labor. The Senator's recognition of the need to open immigration for Mexicans, when agricultural labor demand rose, reveals a complicated and paradoxical economic situation in which the Senate recognized the fruit and vegetable industry's reliance upon Mexican labor.
Secretary of Labor James L. Davis enthusiastically backed Senator Allen's bill as "the first real effort to place immigration to the United States upon a proper basis."11 In February 1932, similar limitations were being endorsed by the agricultural industry in California. C. B. Moore, Secretary of the Western Grower's Protective Association and Chairman of the California Statewide Committee on Agricultural Labor, and R. N. Wilson representing the California State Chamber of Commerce and the Central Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce, urged that immigration from Mexico be left alone "so that laborers from below the international border can be kept out altogether, as they have been kept out the past two years."12 Recognizing that the economic situation was temporary, Moore and Wilson opposed legislation that would permanently alter the immigration policy of the United States. Instead, Moore and Wilson argued that Mexican immigrants should be kept out temporarily until their labor was needed.

W.C. Hushing of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and A.F. Stout of the Maintenance of Way Employees, vigorously opposed Senator Allen's bill because "it would," according to Hushing, "delay the passage of restrictive immigration bills."13 For organized labor, restricting immigration was essential to the protection of their members. W.C. Hushing and A.F. Stout's opposition to Senator Allen's bill reveals the paradox in the economic basis for the developing immigration policy. While demand was high in California for agricultural laborers, Mexicans were targeted for deportation to remove them from jobs that could be taken by white laborers. And for organized labor, Mexicans presented a challenge to their power structure.

On December 9, 1930 President Herbert Hoover named William N. Doak Secretary of Labor (the department responsible for immigration until 1940.) Doak believed that deporting aliens occupying jobs the department wanted for white America could solve the increasing unemployment problem. In an effort to remove these aliens, Doak ordered his agents to raid public and private places throughout 1931 in search of aliens to deport.14 Though there is no evidence that Doak made any effort to single out any specific ethnic group, the demographics of Los Angeles and the local government's desire to remove residents of Mexican descent, resulted in the targeting of the Mexican community.15

The economic situation was especially tenuous for Mexican immigrants who had the threat of deportation continually hanging over them. With the United State's broad interpretation of "undesirable" aliens, deportation presented a real threat to laborers who attempted to challenge their working conditions. This tenuous and dangerous situation is exemplified in a letter written by California State Governor Frank Merriam regarding the deportation of "aliens found guilty of participating in... strike riots." Merriam wrote, "I feel justified in seeking the support and co-operation of the Federal government in ridding California and the nation of men and women who are not citizens of the United States and whose active willful purpose is to cause disruption of our governmental institutions and destruction of our economic and social organizations."16

Federal, state, and local governments' efforts to remove and restrict Mexican Americans from employment ironically left the Mexican American community unable to sufficiently support itself, and ultimately in need of public and private aid. It was these very indigents, as immigrants reliant on welfare were referred to, that were targeted by all levels of government for the burden they placed on the taxpayer. In January 1933, Federal Agents in Los Angeles under Murray W. Garsson (Special Assistant to Secretary of Labor Doak) working with Mrs. A.I. Robinson (Director of the Bureau of County Welfare in Los Angeles) opened a drive for the deportation of alien "paupers."17 Mrs. A.I. Robinson reported that the county had families on their books who had "been paid sums ranging from $2,000 to $6,000, and it [was] the [the county's] intention to send these people back to their own countries where they [could] receive charity from their own people, rather than continue to be a burden on citizen taxpayers."18
Echoing Mrs. A.I. Robinson, County Superintendent of Charities Earl E. Jensen argued that "[s]uspension of the repatriation of Mexican aliens... [placed] an extremely heavy burden upon the taxpayers of Los Angeles County."19 As of January 1, 1934, Superintendent Jensen claimed that there were 63,000 Mexicans on the welfare rolls - 23,000 of which were U.S. citizens. According to Jensen, 11.7 per cent of relief recipients were of Mexican ancestry, receiving an average of $20 per month, totaling over $200,000 monthly or $2.4 million annually - "a financial burden the county [could] ill afford."20 To eliminate these financial burdens, the repatriation drives became more widely used. Beginning March 23, 1931, the department directed fifteen repatriation movements and succeeded in repatriating 12,668 individuals or 3,145 cases (families). The average case was repatriated at a cost of $67.67.
It should not be surprising that Mexican Americans accounted for an increasing amount of public and private aid since their exclusion from employment left them little options. The burdensome employment restrictions were recognized by some county officials, including Los Angeles County Superintendent Jefferson, who pointed out that the Civil Works Administration's (CWA) restriction on only hiring American citizens had caused an increase of 30 per cent in Mexican relief. Jefferson argued that the Mexican "is refused the permission to work, even though he is willing to do so."21

Employment restrictions had created a situation that forced more Mexican Americans to rely on the welfare system, which inevitably left them vulnerable to the repatriation program.22 Newspaper articles announcing that the drive would "repatriate 30 families... saving $100,000"23 undeniably reinforced the perception that the repatriation drives held the key to eliminating the burden on welfare organizations and opening employment opportunities.


History 1 2 3 next


1 "The Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program" SB 670
(Feb. 22, 2005) Introduced by Joseph Dunn (D-Garden Grove)
2 Eric L. Ray, "Mexican Repatriation and the Possibility for a Federal Cause of Action: A comparative Analysis on Repatriations," The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Fall, 2005), 175.
3 Ibid. 196.
4 "Illegal-Alien Bar Sought", Los Angeles Times, Jan 13, 1931.
5 Abraham Hoffman, "Mexican Repatriation Statistics: Some Suggested Alternatives to Carey McWilliams," The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), 391.
6 "Quinn Demands Alien Ousting," Los Angeles Times, Sep 26, 1930.
7 "Illegal-Alien Bar Sought," Los Angeles Times, Jan 13, 1931.
8 "County Bars Alien Work," Los Angeles Times, Jan 14, 1930.
9 Ibid.
10 "Mexican Aliens Rapped," Los Angeles Times, Jan 15, 1931.
11 "Alien Plan Submitted," Los Angeles Times, Apr 9, 1930.
12 "State Against Mexican Bars," Los Angeles Times, Feb 24, 1932.
13 "Alien Plan Submitted," Los Angeles Times, Apr 9, 1930.
14 Abraham Hoffman, "Stimulus to Repatriation: The 1931 Federal Deportation Drive ad the Los Angeles Mexican Community" The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, No. 2 (May, 1973), 206.
15 Ibid. 207.
16 "Labor Secretary Orders Action to Oust Aliens," Los Angles Times, Jul 19, 1934.
17 "Needy Aliens to go Home," Los Angeles Times, Jan 1, 1933.
18 Ibid.
19 "Aliens Load Relief Roll: Mexican Indigent Burden Heavy," Los Angeles Times, Mar 4, 1934.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 "Repatriate Drive Begun," Los Angeles Times, Mar 31, 1934.
23 Ibid.

Craig S. Frame Homepage

©2009 Craig S. Frame

All copyrighted photos and materials are used for educational purposes only under "Educational Fair Use" CSU San Marcos