Mexican Americans and the Great Depression

by Steven Mintz

In February 1930 in San Antonio, Tex., 5000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans gathered at the city's railroad station to depart the United States for settlement in Mexico. In August, a special train carried another 2000 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, more than 400,000 repatriodos, many of them citizens of the United States by birth, were sent across the U.S.-Mexico border from Arizona, California, and Texas. Texas' Mexican-born population was reduced by a third. Los Angeles also lost a third of its Mexican population. In Los Angeles, the only Mexican American student at Occidental College sang a painful farewell song 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 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 believed that removal of undocumented 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 one raid in Los Angeles in February 1931, police surrounded a downtown park and detained some 400 adults and children. The threat of unemployment, deportation, and loss of relief payments led tens of thousands of people to leave the United States.

The New Deal offered Mexican Americans a little help. The Farm Security Administration established camps for migrant farm workers in California, and the CCC and WPA hired unemployed Mexican Americans on relief jobs. Many, however, did not qualify for relief assistance because as migrant workers they did not meet residency requirements. Furthermore, agricultural workers were not eligible for benefits under workers' compensation, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act.

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