Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It's Happened Before

Sep 8, 2015
Originally published on September 21, 2015 3:36 pm

Presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to deport all 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, along with their U.S.-born children, sounds far-fetched. But something similar happened before.

During the 1930s and into the 1940s, up to 2 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were deported or expelled from cities and towns across the U.S. and shipped to Mexico. According to some estimates, more than half of these people were U.S. citizens, born in the United States.

It's a largely forgotten chapter in history that Francisco Balderrama, a California State University historian, documented in Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. He co-wrote that book with the late historian Raymond Rodriguez.

"There was a perception in the United States that Mexicans are Mexicans," Balderrama said. "Whether they were American citizens, or whether they were Mexican nationals, in the American mind — that is, in the mind of government officials, in the mind of industry leaders — they're all Mexicans. So ship them home."

It was the Great Depression, when up to a quarter of Americans were unemployed and many believed that Mexicans were taking scarce jobs. In response, federal, state and local officials launched so-called "repatriation" campaigns. They held raids in workplaces and in public places, rounded up Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike, and deported them. The most famous of these was in downtown Los Angeles' Placita Olvera in 1931.

Balderrama says these raids were intended to spread fear throughout Mexican barrios and pressure Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to leave on their own. In many cases, they succeeded.

Where they didn't, government officials often used coercion to get rid of Mexican-Americans who were U.S. citizens. In Los Angeles, it was standard practice for county social workers to tell those receiving public assistance that they would lose it, and that they would be better off in Mexico. Those social workers would then get tickets for families to travel to Mexico. According to Balderrama's research, one-third of LA's Mexican population was expelled between 1929 and 1944 as a result of these practices.

That's what happened to Emilia Castañeda and her family.

Castañeda was born in Los Angeles in 1926 to immigrant parents. Her mother died while she was growing up, and her father struggled to get work during the Depression. When Castañeda was nine, Los Angeles County paid to put the family on a southbound train to Mexico. They lived with relatives, but often had to sleep outdoors for lack of space.

"The oldest of the boys, he used to call me a repatriada," Castañeda remembered in a 1971 interview, using the Spanish word for a repatriate. "And I don't think I felt that I was a repatriada, because I was an American citizen." Castañeda didn't return to the U.S. until she was 17, by which point she had lost much of her English. Her father never returned.

Balderrama says these family separations remain a lasting legacy of the mass deportations of that era. Despite claims by officials at the time that deporting U.S.-born children — along with their immigrant parents — would keep families together, many families were destroyed.

Esteban Torres was a toddler when his father, a Mexican immigrant, was caught up in a workplace roundup at an Arizona copper mine in the mid-1930s. "My mother, like other wives, waited for the husbands to come home from the mine. But he didn't come home," Torres recalled in a recent interview. He now lives east of Los Angeles. "I was 3 years old. My brother was 2 years old. And we never saw my father again."

Torres' mother suspected that his father had been targeted because of his efforts to organize miners. That led Esteban Torres to a lifelong involvement with organized labor. He was eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and served there from 1983 to 1999.

Today, Torres serves on the board of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, a Mexican-American cultural center. In front of it stands a memorial that the state of California dedicated in 2012, apologizing to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who were illegally deported or expelled during the Depression.

"It was a sorrowful step that this country took," Torres said. "It was a mistake. And for Trump to suggest that we should do it again is ludicrous, stupid and incomprehensible."

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Here in the United States, presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for illegal immigrants and their American-born children to be deported. Critics say there's about zero likelihood this would ever happen. But it has happened before. Mexicans, many of them naturalized U.S. citizens, were deported during the Great Depression. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team has a look back.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Now, I'm standing here in downtown Los Angeles next to the oldest Catholic church in LA. And there's a plaque here, a memorial commemorating the forced removal Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Now, this monument has a lot of text it. But one of the lines that stands out is this one. It says, in total, an estimated 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were forcibly relocated to Mexico. Approximately 1.2 million of these people were United States citizens.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: There was a perception in the United States that Mexicans are Mexicans.

FLORIDO: Francisco Balderrama co-wrote "Decade Of Betrayal," which documents these deportations that took place from 1929 to 1944.

BALDERRAMA: Whether they were American citizens or whether they were Mexican nationals, in the American mind - that is, in the mind of the government officials, in the mind of industry leaders - they're all Mexicans. So ship them home.

FLORIDO: During the Depression, when up to a quarter of Americans were unemployed, people feared that Mexican immigrants were taking scarce jobs. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were rounded up and deported, often without formal deportation hearings. One of these roundups is depicted in the classic Gregory Nava film, "Mi Familia."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I live here. No, I belong here.

FLORIDO: But it wasn't only federal agents removing people by force. Coercion was also an important tool for expelling Mexican-Americans. County social workers from Michigan to California played a big role in this. They often told Mexican-Americans that they'd be better off in Mexico and arranged their travel on trains. LA County was ground zero for this practice. And Balderrama says that during the Depression...

BALDERRAMA: One-third of the Mexican population of Los Angeles is expelled.

FLORIDO: Many those were U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants, people like Emilia Castaneda. She was born in LA, where her father, an immigrant, had settled and worked. In 1935, when Castaneda was 9, she says LA County bought tickets to put her family on a southbound train to Mexico. In a 1971 interview, she remembered what it was like when they arrived and moved in with relatives.


EMILIA CASTANEDA: We used to have to you, you know, sleep outdoors, out in the - if it rained, boy... It rains in Mexico. And a lot of times, we were sleeping and all of a sudden here comes a rainstorm. We used to be soaked to the bone.

FLORIDO: She also remembered feeling like she didn't belong.


CASTANEDA: The oldest of the boys, he used to call me repatriada.

FLORIDO: That's the Spanish word for a repatriate.


CASTANEDA: And I don't think I felt that I was a repatriada because, you know, I was an American citizen.

FLORIDO: Castaneda eventually returns to the U.S. But she said she would never forget being labeled a Mexican repatriate. This term, repatriate, is really important in understanding how this mass expulsion of U.S. citizens worked. Then, like today, only the federal government had the authority to deport people. But most of this work was done by county officials, which Professor Balderrama says they justified this way.

BALDERRAMA: We do not call it deportation. We call it repatriation.

FLORIDO: Balderrama says the desperation of the Great Depression enabled the mass disregard for the rights of Mexican Americans. And he believes the economic insecurity of this era is what's behind the calls to do it again. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.