Repatriation During the Great Depression
Digital History ID 3699
In February 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, five thousand Mexicans and Mexican Americans gathered at the city's railroad station to depart from the United States for resettlement in Mexico. In August, a special train carried another two thousand to central Mexico. Most Americans are familiar with the forced relocation in 1942 of 112,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps. Far fewer are aware that during the Great Depression, the Federal Bureau of Immigration (after 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) and local authorities rounded up Mexican immigrants and naturalized Mexican American citizens and shipped them to Mexico to reduce relief roles. In a shameful episode in the nation's history, more than 400,000 repatriados, many of them citizens of the United States by birth, were sent across the U.S.-Mexico border from Arizona, California, and Texas. Texas's Mexican-born population was reduced by a third. Los Angeles lost a third of its Mexican population. In Los Angeles, the only Mexican American student at Occidental College sang a painful farewell song, "Las Golondrinas," to serenade departing Mexicans.
Even before the stock market crash, there had been intense pressure from the American Federation of Labor and municipal governments to reduce the number of Mexican immigrants. Opposition from local chambers of commerce, economic development associations, and state farm bureaus stymied efforts to impose an immigration quota, but rigid enforcement of existing laws slowed legal entry. In 1928, United States consulates in Mexico began to apply with unprecedented rigor the literacy test legislated in 1917.
After President Herbert Hoover appointed William N. Doak as secretary of labor in 1930, the Bureau of Immigration launched intensive raids to identify aliens liable for deportation. The secretary of labor believed that removal of illegal aliens would reduce relief expenditures and free jobs for native-born citizens. Altogether, 82,400 were involuntarily deported by the federal government. Federal efforts were accompanied by city and county pressure to repatriate destitute Mexican American families. In January 1931, the Los Angeles County welfare director asked federal immigration officials to send a team to the city to supervise the deportation of Mexicans. The presence of federal agents, he said, would "have a tendency to scare many thousands of alien deportables out of this district, which is the intended result." In one raid in February 1931, police surrounded a downtown park popular with Mexicans and Mexican Americans and held some four hundred adults and children captive for over an hour. The threat of unemployment, deportation, and loss of relief payments led hundreds of thousands of others to leave.
In this selection, a letter distributed to San Diego's Mexican and Mexican American population in August 1932, the Mexican Consulate invites these people to take advantage of an offer to repatriate in Mexico.
The Government of Mexico, with the cooperation and aid of the Welfare Committee of this County, will effect the repatriation of all Mexicans who currently reside in this County and who might wish to return to their country.... Those persons who are repatriated will be able to choose among the States of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato as the place of their final destination, with the understanding that the Government of Mexico will provide them with lands for agricultural cultivation...and will aid them in the best manner possible so that they might settle in the country.
Those persons who take part in this movement of repatriation may count on free transportation from San Diego to the place where they are going to settle, and they will be permitted to bring with them their furniture, household utensils, agricultural implements, and whatever other objects for personal use they might possess.
Since the organization and execution of a movement of repatriation of this nature implies great expenditures, this Consulate encourages you...to take advantage of this special opportunity being offered to you for returning to Mexico at no cost whatever and so that...you might dedicate all your energies to your personal improvement, that of your family, and that of our country.
If you wish to take advantage of this opportunity, please return this letter...with the understanding that, barring notice to the contrary from this Consulate, you should present yourself with your family and your luggage on the municipal dock of this port on the 23rd of this month before noon.
Source: Mexico City, Archivo de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, IV-360-38.
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