They would be better off

Another bit of history I didn’t know about (or, if I did, forgot). I should make a section for those in In Focus. Yesterday on Fresh Air, America’s Forgotten History Of Mexican-American ‘Repatriation.’

Donald Trump has proposed immigration reform that would include building a wall on the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico, and calls for the mass deportation of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. The deportation plan has echoes of a largely forgotten chapter of American history when, in the 1930s, during the Depression, about a million people were forced out of the U.S. across the border into Mexico. It wasn’t called deportation. It was euphemistically referred to as repatriation, returning people to their native country. But about 60 percent of the people in the Mexican repatriation drive were actually U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Perhaps the most widely cited book on the subject was co-written by my guest, Francisco Balderrama. The book is called “Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s.”

Gee. Does that sound like anything? Yes, it sounds like the internment of Japanese-Americans in the following decade.

It also sounds like the relationship that Nazi Germany had with German Jews.

It makes my blood run cold.


Francisco Balderrama, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you give us an overview of the scope of the mass deportations or the repatriation of the 1930s? Like, how many people were affected? And of those people, how many of them were actually American citizens?

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, conservatively, we’re talking about over 1 million Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent from throughout the United States, from the American Southwest to the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest to the South, even Alaska included. This occurred on a number of different levels through a formal deportation campaign at the federal government, then also efforts by major industries as well as efforts on the local and state level. Conservatively, we are able to estimate that 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

One million, at least. 600 thousand were citizens.

There was no federal deportation act. There was Hoover’s attorney general, who “instituted a program of deportations” – and I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how the federal AG can deport people just by instituting a program, so that’s something I need to learn more about. But there were also corporations.

And at the same time, U.S. Steel, Ford Motor Company, Southern Pacific Railroad said to their Mexican workers, you would be better off in Mexico with your own people. At the same time that that’s occurring, differing counties on the county level in some cases the state level, then decide to cut relief cost – their target at Mexican families.

Welfare, that is – which was very very minimal.

BALDERRAMA: Yes, yes, at that time it’s called – or charities at that time as well. Now, there was the development of a deportation desk from LA County relief agencies going out and recruiting Mexicans to go to Mexico. And they called it the deportation desk. Now, LA legal counsel says you can’t do that. That’s the responsibility, that’s the duty of the federal government. So they backed up and said, well, we’re not going to call it deportation. We’re going to call it repatriation. And repatriation carries connotations that it’s voluntary, that people are making their own decision without pressure to return to the country of their nationality. But most obviously, how voluntary is it if you have deportation raids by the federal government during the Hoover administration and people are disappearing on the streets? How voluntary is it if you have county agents knocking on people’s doors telling people oh, you would be better off in Mexico and here are your train tickets? You should be ready to go in two weeks.

Yup, sounds like the internments all right, except for the unofficial quality of the coercion.

And holy shit, what a horror.

GROSS: So what were some of the ways that Mexicans in the U.S. were pressured to leave?

BALDERRAMA: Well, they were pressured by county agents, sometimes from relief agencies knocking on their door and telling Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales that you would be better off in Mexico where you can be with your own people and speak your own language. We have arranged for train tickets. You can take so many boxes or suitcases with you. Would you please show up at the train station in two weeks? And sometimes it extended beyond those that were on relief. Sometimes families that did have individuals that were working maybe limited time, which was very common during the Great Depression, but scaring them and telling them well, I don’t know how long you’re going to keep that job. Maybe you better just go to Mexico because you’re liable to lose that particular job. And I think another factor is just waking up and looking at the newspaper, seeing that there’s raids. Here in Los Angeles, we had the very famous Placita raid, in which a part of Downtown Los Angeles is cornered off, and there’s banner headlines saying, deportation of Mexicans – not distinguishing between those with papers and not distinguishing those that are American citizens but always just referring to Mexicans and deportation of Mexicans and not making any of those distinctions. Those are the pressures that this population lived with.

This crap about “you would be better off in Mexico where you can be with your own people and speak your own language” – what is that? Well obviously it’s just gangsterish bullshit, but it’s gruesome anyway, pretending to be caring and daring to contradict the choices other people make about their lives. What do you bet that during the boom in the twenties corporations were actively recruiting labor from Mexico? Then in the bust it’s all “oh hey you’d be better off back down there where we don’t have to count you in the unemployment stats any more.”

Strange that this isn’t better known, isn’t it…

GROSS: I didn’t learn about the mass deportations of the 1930s until I was led to it by reading about Donald Trump’s plan to deport Mexicans who are not here legally. How come – I don’t know if you can really answer this. I’m sure you cannot. But how come I didn’t know about it, and how come so many people I know didn’t know about it either? How come this wasn’t in the history books I read in school?

BALDERRAMA: Well, for some 40 years or so in Chicano studies history classes, it’s been taught. But nobody knew the impact that it had in terms of the United States as well as in Mexico. When we did “Decade Of Betrayal” – first came out in the 1990s – it was talked about as a book of revelation. And in 2003, California Sen. Joe Dunn read the book, and he shared your same sentiments. He had never heard about it. He was disgusted to learn about it. He wanted to give it attention. And we had hearings in Sacramento. In short, what occurred is the state of California has issued an apology. The LA Plaza Museum has an historical monument memorializing what happened to American citizens of Mexican descent. And AB-146, sponsored by Cristina Garcia of the State Assembly, has just been passed and is now at the governor’s desk to teach about the deportations.

I too am disgusted to learn about it.

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