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History lessons: The first deportation

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Rogue Columnist

History lessons: The first deportation

  • The Bisbee Deportation in July 1917.
    The Bisbee Deportation in July 1917.

Led by Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidates are embracing the policy of deporting some 11 million Hispanics in the country illegally.

If implemented, it would be a humanitarian calamity and a stain on the nation. But it wouldn't be the first time "American exceptionalism" took such a cruel turn.

During the Great Depression, some 1 million Mexicans were deported from the United States to Mexico. An estimated 60 percent were American citizens. In 1930, the U.S. population was only 123 million.

The overt intention was to free up more jobs for "Americans" (read Anglos) when unemployment was 25 percent or higher. But it was invariably twined with racism, score settling and ethnic cleansing.

The most definitive scholarly account is found in the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, by Francisco Balderrama and the late Raymond Rodriguez. They focus heavily on Los Angeles County, where the deportation was active and records were kept.

The degree to which it was carried out in Arizona and Phoenix is less documented. The late historian Bradford Luckingham writes of the intense anti-Mexican sentiment in Phoenix in the 1930s. In a six-month period during 1933, 130 Mexican families were "repatriated" from Phoenix. They received food and clothing from Friendly House, the city's oldest immigrant-assistance charity.

Arizona also had a precedent with the 1917 Bisbee Deportation. Many of the striking miners forced into freight cars and deposited in the New Mexico wilderness in high summer were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

"Repatriation," rather than deportation, was the word used. It clothed the movement in a respectable, even compassionate garb. Mexicans in America could return to their "home," where they "could be with their own kind" and those "who spoke their language."

The deportation was not carried our by the federal government. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service under both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt stood by as county and state authorities — even companies such as the Southern Pacific Railroad — carried out deportation.

In some cases, deputies would arrive to tell Mexicans they were being sent "back home." They were given two weeks to leave and often shipped to the border on trains. (Many Hispanics that worked for the railroad lost their jobs as an incentive to leave). In other cases, individuals and families were given even less time.

Many families lost almost everything they had spent years or generations building in America. Family members were separated, some being sent to Mexico while others remained in America. Jobs were not abundant in Mexico and only gradually did U.S. authorities help fund transporting deportees to the interior — often to towns or states of which they had little memory.

Balderrama and Rodriguez write of children, American citizens, forced into Mexico, where they didn't even speak Spanish. They were shunned by Mexican children.

In addition to the human tragedy, the policy soon became an economic mistake. By 1937, the Arizona Cotton Growers Association wanted an end to New Deal work programs, so it could find enough pickers to work for its poor wages and in horrid conditions. In other words, the jobs that Mexicans performed before the deportation (and African-Americans continued to do).

As war production ramped up in the late 1930s, the United States began to face worker shortages and encouraged Mexico to send migrants back north again.

So the question isn't whether a Republican president and Congress could carry out a new mass deportation. In the 1930s, America showed itself chillingly capable of doing so.

I wonder if Decade of Betrayal was among the Chicano studies books that the Kooks wanted banned? No wonder.

This column first appeared on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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