"Decade of Betrayal": How the U.S. Expelled Over a Half Million U.S. Citizens to Mexico in 1930s
President Donald Trump is slated to give his first presidential address to Congress today. Democratic lawmakers have begun giving their tickets away to immigrants as a protest against Trump’s push to increase deportations and to block residents from some Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Well, this is not the first time people of Mexican descent have been demonized, accused of stealing jobs, and forced to leave the country. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than a million people residing in the United States were deported to Mexico—about 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. We speak to the preeminent scholar on this often overlooked chapter of American history: Francisco Balderrama, professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles. He is co-author of "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s."
AMY GOODMAN: "Deportee," this version sung by Joan Baez. The song was written by Woody Guthrie about a crash that killed 32 people, most of them migrant farmworkers who were being deported from California to Mexico. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Donald Trump is slated to give his first presidential address to Congress today. Democratic lawmakers have begun giving their tickets away to immigrants as a protest against Trump’s push to increase deportations and to block residents from some Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Last week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump wants to, quote, "take the shackles off" of the nation’s immigration agents.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies and say, "You have a mission. There are laws that need to be followed. You should do your mission and follow the law."
AMY GOODMAN: Last Thursday, President Trump called his deportation plans a military operation during a meeting with manufacturing CEOs.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You see what’s happening at the border. All of a sudden, for the first time, we’re getting gang members out. We’re getting drug lords out. We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country and at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before. And they’re the bad ones. And it’s a military operation, because what has been allowed to come into our country, when you see gang violence that you’ve read about like never before and all of the things, much of that is people that are here illegally. And they’re rough, and they’re tough, but they’re not tough like our people. So we’re getting them out.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is not the first time people of Mexican descent have been demonized, accused of stealing jobs, and forced to leave the country. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than a million people residing in the United States were deported to Mexico. Some estimate as much as 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2003, then-California state Senator Joe Dunn held hearings in Sacramento, where survivors gave testimony about what happened to them during the forced expulsions, which the government called repatriations. This is Senator Dunn stressing the importance of the hearing.
SEN. JOE DUNN: The idea from which this nation was born was the promise to all of liberty and justice. Today we examine a tragic part of American history where we betrayed the justice part of that promise, and a betrayal that affected a staggering number of individuals. By some estimates, almost 2 million individuals were deported from the United States in the 1930s. Some estimate that almost 60 percent of those that were deported were United States citizens. And they were deported for but one reason: They just happened to be of Mexican descent.
AMY GOODMAN: The state of California went on to issue a formal apology for its role in the expulsions and built a memorial in downtown Los Angeles to commemorate the victims. But many fear that history is now on the verge or repeating itself already.
For more, we’re going to Los Angeles, California, where we’re joined by the preeminent scholar on this often overlooked chapter of American history: Francisco Balderrama, professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles. He’s the co-author of the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s.
Professor Balderrama, thank you so much for joining us. I think, for many, especially young people, but I am sure many more, do not know this chapter of American history. Can you lay it out for us, what actually happened?
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: You’re right that it’s largely not known—and that’s in the larger American society, the Mexican nation, as well as in the Mexican community itself—that this occurred during the Great Depression, a period of vast unemployment and underemployment, that at least over a million—Joe Dunn thinks in terms of maybe almost 2 million—individuals, Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent, were swept up and expelled out of this country. And it covered the entire United States. From Alabama and Mississippi to Alaska, from Los Angeles to New York, this mass expulsion occurred, and of a population that included Mexican nationals, many of them that had lived in this country 20, 30 years, but increasingly important is the 60 percent or more of American citizens of Mexican descent. In other words, what occurred here was unconstitutional deportation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Balderrama, I’m wondering if you could talk also about the role of the press at that time in stirring up anti-immigrant fervor, because this began during the Hoover administration and then moved on into the Roosevelt administration. What was the role of the press, as well?
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, the role of the press is significant, but it is also reflecting the larger American society at this time, as well. The key notion that the press puts forward is that a Mexican is a Mexican. There is no distinction in terms of residents in this country—as I mentioned earlier, many of them had lived in this country 20, 25 years, most of them were documented, most of them had papers—and that their children that were born in this country were U.S. citizens. No distinctions made. And that is accepted in this society and serves as a way of looking at the population, that even though they had contributed during better times to the economic prosperity of the United States, that now that’s not recognized. They are the other, so to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Ignacio Piña, who lived in rural Idaho when sheriffs came to his house and took everybody in custody in the summer of 1931. His parents had lived in the United States for some 25 years. He was about to enter first grade. We’re taking this from a film called A Forgotten Injustice. A now-elderly Piña describes what happened that day.
IGNACIO PIÑA: [translated] My mother was cooking and hand-making flour tortillas. I remember we were eating them with melted butter. Then, all of a sudden, they arrived. They pointed their guns at us. One officer was standing outside. The other one was inside. And they said, "Come on, let’s go. Come on." And my mother would ask, "Where?" "No questions. Come on. Out!"
They took us to the fields where my father was working. They grabbed him, too, and then they filled up the other car with Mexicans that were working there, as well.
In Pocatello, Idaho, they put us in jail. We were in jail for six or seven days. I was six years old. And as a kid, I could not understand why we were in jail if we were not criminals. My father was in one cell, and my mother was in another one with me, my three sisters and my two brothers. But I could not understand why.
Even when we were in the train on our way to El Paso, Texas, I wondered, "Where is this train going? What’s going to happen with us?" There were about five cars with lots of Mexicans, lots of families. We were so young, but I remember looking around at the people. They looked so sad, because many were suffering the same things we were facing. They were kicked out, too.
They did it so we couldn’t come back, even the ones that were born here, like us. They didn’t let us take anything with us, not even our birth certificates.
AMY GOODMAN: "Not even our birth certificates." That was Ignacio Piña. Professor Balderrama, you knew Ignacio Piña. Can you tell us more about this story and how typical it was?
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, Mr. Piña called me after we had the hearings in Sacramento. We conducted extensive interviews. And getting to meet his family, his son shared with me that he no longer has the nightmares, that this man was experiencing well into his eighties, because he was able to share his story with us. Mr. Piña, who’s recently deceased, became an activist in regards of the Apology Act and the erection of the memorial here in Los Angeles. And I think it shows that an individual that suffered with this throughout his life, that even had nightmares as a senior citizen about that, became an activist and shared that story multiple times, to the press, to the television, on and on, with a conviction that, as many of the other survivors, that this not happen to anybody else. When he said that, and the other survivors, not to happen to anybody else, he just doesn’t mean people of Mexican descent or Latino descent. Rather, what he’s saying is anybody else, and especially those that are American citizens. It shouldn’t happen. We should not have unconstitutional deportation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Balderrama, you’ve specialized in the mass deportations of the 1930s. But that was not the last of these deportations, right? In the 1950s, there was Operation Wetback under the Eisenhower administration. Then, of course, during the Bush years and into the Obama years, there were the mass deportations that occurred. It seems every time there is an economic crisis in the United States, the first reflex is to start mass deportations of "the other," as this society begins to declare them.
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Exactly, Juan. You’re right on target with that, that we do have these cycles. What behooves American society to understand is that this early period that I have studied, the early 20th century and the Great Depression, which is the most severe economic crisis of the 20th and the 21st century, is the fact that at that time developed this ideology, this set of beliefs, this way of thinking of the Mexican, Latino population, that somehow they are not part of our society, that they are—that many of them are criminals, many of them are here to be on welfare, that somehow, someway, they cannot become part of our society. And I think what is especially important to keep in mind for your listeners is that as we experience the nightmare of today, the crisis of today, which is different, that same ideology, that same way of thinking, is still in action today.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go, Professor Balderrama, to your late co-author, Raymond Rodríguez. This is Rodríguez speaking at the 2003 Select Committee on Citizen Participation at the California state Senate.
RAYMOND RODRÍGUEZ: My dad left in 1936, when I was 10. I never saw my dad again. How is anybody going to compensate me for that loss?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Raymond Rodríguez, your co-author. Can you tell us about him and his family’s experience? And also, why just Mexicans? Was it only Mexicans?
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well—
AMY GOODMAN: Because 60 percent of them perhaps were American.
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Raymond Rodríguez was my—was my—not only my colleague. Raymond Rodríguez was a very, very dear friend. We spoke with one voice when we wrote Decade of Betrayal. And in countless venues, we spoke with one voice in terms of this particular issue. I had known Ray for some 20 years at the time that we completed the first edition of Decade of Betrayal. And at that moment, I learned that his father had been a repatriot, at that moment when the book was finished and we were submitting it to the publisher. I knew that he had grown up with a single parent, with a mother only, but I didn’t know what had happened to his father. So, in a lot of ways, my co-author, my treasured friend, his work, together, his scholarship, as well as his activism, was trying to uncover that history, his own family history.
And we see that thread among others, as well, many other individuals who, in understanding this issue from reading Decade of Betrayal, from hearing your radio program, from looking at this and understanding this, have developed a larger understanding. What we have seen happen is that this private history has now become a public history. And many people, as they deal with this, trying to become a public history, that even though Ray, in—the excerpt that you just played was the very first time that publicly he announced that his father had been a repatriot, that what had happened had divided his family. His mother and his siblings stayed here in the United States, and his father returned to Mexico, and he never saw his father again.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Balderrama, this whole issue of repatriation, the United States government labeled it "repatriation" because it claimed that the people were voluntarily agreeing to go back to their home country. But as you know, as you’ve reported, and as happens right here in the United States now, people are picked up, locked up and then told, "If you don’t want to stay locked up, then you agree to be—to self-deport, to, in essence, leave the country and go back to your home country." So it’s really a choice of staying in jail or having a chance possibly to come back legally at some other time.
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Juan, you’re right about that. But looking at it in the context of the 1930s is that "repatriation" was a cover-up word, because at that time, which marks the '30s different than today, is that the big source of this expulsion is on the local level. It's in the cities and counties that took upon themselves to say to their communities, "There is enough jobs for real Americans, if we can get rid of these other people." So, L.A. County and other counties throughout the nation then pressured Mexican families to leave, even though Mexicans, from my research, never were a large percentage of those that were on welfare. But it played to the notion or the idea that Mexicans were on welfare. Here in L.A. County, they began to call their actions "deportation." And the legal counsel says, "No, you can’t do that. Only the federal government can do that." And that’s where the word "repatriation" is born, so to speak, to be used in that context to cover it up, to make it look clean, make it look like it’s voluntary. But at the same time, you have public raids. At the same time, you have the press talking about unwanted Mexican Americans. All of these actions are very coercive.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Balderrama, your response to what’s happening today, and the parallels that you see and the ways you can see avoiding history repeating itself?
FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, obviously, this is a nightmare. Obviously, the legacy of this is in the Mexican community. Even before this happened, I know many senior citizens who would carry around their papers, their documentation, whatever they had, in fear that they might get caught up in a sweep. Now, obviously, those same feelings are being reported daily in the press about people staying home, people even fearful to go out and buy groceries. So that has returned.
But what I think marks the difference between the past and today is, the simple fact is that we have in the Mexican community different groups—the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund, MALDEF, other groups—and, more importantly, the different across ethnic, progressive groups together, whether they be Japanese-American, whether they be Jewish American, the various other groups who have come together and are very conscious of what is happening and are dedicated to those actions of activism to stop this, what’s occurring.
AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Balderrama, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles, co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. We’ll link to that book, as well as yours, Juan, Harvest of Empire, the whole story that—in which you include this, as well.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the son of Muhammad Ali and his mother join us. Why were they stopped, American citizens, when they came back into this country? Stay with us.