Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The shameful treatment of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression remains a "great" national "secret"

The June edition of the Atlantic Monthly has another quizzical cover story, only slightly less so than last month’s “confidence” story I commented on. This time it is the case made by someone named Ta-nehisci Coates to renew the call for “reparations” for African-Americans. The reasons to justify this are the initial removal of Africans from their homelands, and subsequent bondage in the United States, followed by discrimination in its various names and forms. From Africa, their heritage and freedom was stolen from them, although what material wealth was denied is a matter of debate. In America, from the loss of freedom and then subsequent discrimination a case can be made for the denial or lack of resources required to gain material wealth and goods rather than the actual loss of goods (save for the burning of property, not uncommon in the civil rights era in the South). 

This is unlike, say, the Japanese internees during World War II, whose material possessions were not technically “stolen,” but more likely “lost.” Internees were allowed to bring a certain amount of personal goods with them, and the rest was either sold or left in government “storage,” where some pilfering likely occurred by the keepers. Those who owned their own property, such as farms, were given a limited amount of time to maintain ownership (by persuading neighbors to look after them) or selling them, no doubt at fire-sale prices. In 1948, a law was passed to reimburse internees for their losses, but only one-quarter of the total amount in claims were paid out. The reparations law passed in 1988 paid out $1.6 billion to over 80,000 former internees and their descendents.

The civilians of Japanese heritage were not the only people to be in interned during war time. During World War I the Enemy Alien Registration Section, headed by none other than paranoid bigot J. Edgar Hoover (then a mere 23 years old), arrested more than 6,000 German nationals and legal residents of “questionable loyalty” in the U.S., and imprisoned more than 2,000 during the war. The paranoia was such that almost the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra was detained behind barbed wire. Most German internees remained so until well after the war, and there was no call for “reparations.” 

During World War II, under the same Enemy Alien statute, more than 30,000 non-Japanese were interned, mostly German and Italian nationals and citizens of questionable loyalty (including the head of the American Nazi Party, Fritz Kuhn). Lists of suspect persons were given to Latin American countries, from whom the U.S. demanded extradition. Again, no redress, either monetarily or morally, was given to those who were U.S. citizens or otherwise legal residents. However, since Americans of German and Italian extraction were a significant portion of the population (especially Germans in the Midwest and Italians in the Northeast), arrests and detentions tended to be on a “case- by-case” basis, rather than en mass. Interestingly, since residents of Japanese descent made up a significant percentage of the population of Hawaii, only a relative handful were interned during the war—despite the fact that they theoretically were more of a “threat” than those on the mainland.

It is also interesting to note that something that was said at that time sounds eerily similar to what we hear today, save in regard to another “enemy alien”—albeit in a different kind of “war”: 

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.”

This was a quote from the Saturday Evening Post in 1942. Japanese citizens were accused of “undermining” the country’s security as well as job theft. This hatred most acute on the generality, rather than on an individual basis. Japanese-Americans were also accused of being “nurtured” in a “transplanted” world that was culturally “alien” to Euro-Americanism. These people were only U.S. citizens by the “accident of birth” and not at all “American.” Of course, today the Japanese and others of Asian extractions are so-called “model minorities” and even practice their own prejudices against those they regard as “inferior.” Still, this is another example of how white (and occasionally black) Americans find new scapegoats for what they claim are “national” problems, but in fact are insular and personal in nature. At one point the Irish, Chinese, Italians, eastern Europeans, Jews and Muslims all were viewed as alien, anti-American presences that needed to be controlled or expelled. For most of these groups, such treatment has passed; but for Latinos, it seems never to have gone away.

It is (again) interesting to note that since many of the Japanese internees were tenant farmers in California, and many of those who could have replaced them were off to war, U.S. farmers had to find “replacement” workers. This was the start of the Bracero program, in which tens of thousands of Mexican laborers were brought into the country to work the fields. The fact that this was necessary at all brings us to a dark chapter in American history that is almost unknown to most Americans: the “repatriation” of Mexican ethnicity to Mexico, regardless of legal status, during the Great Depression. In actual practice this was deportation, usually of the illegal variety, but “repatriation” sounded more “humane.” 

“Repatriation” or deportation was not exactly a new phenomenon. Following the Mexican-American War in 1848, there was either forced or “voluntary” withdrawal of the Mexican population from Texas, despite the fact that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the Mexicans who chose to stay in the newly created American territories (including California and the Southwest) had the same rights as if they were U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, much of white immigration—especially to Texas—came from Southern slave states, and along with it certain racist attitudes; in fact, Texas joined the Confederacy as a slave state. It was here where some of the worst abuses of the civil rights of ostensibly U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. From the 1850s through the 1870s, thousands of Mexican “ethnicity” suffered continuous harassment, discrimination, violence and de facto expulsion from their property and eventually the state without the benefit of due process.

Texas continued to see mass emigration by intimidation, paranoia and prejudice during the early 20th Century. In 1915 there was an alleged “reconquista” of the Southwest afoot, which was never a serious “plan” but was “induced” into the minds of some paranoid Americans by the Mexican Revolution (the U.S. always feared “leftist” revolutions) and the attacks on Americans by Pancho Villa, which led to the U.S. raid into Mexico. Campaigns of deliberate misinformation and intimidation—such as illegally forcing Mexican laborers to register in the selective service, despite not being eligible for the draft—were used to “persuade” the hated brown-skins to “voluntarily” leave the country. After World War II, there was one more great effort to eliminate brown-skinned people from the country during the Eisenhower administration—“Operation Wetback”—but since then forcible eviction has been sporadic and usually merely arbitrary.

Of course, the “irony” of the situation was that there has been tacit and even outright recruitment of Mexican labor throughout the history of this country. While the 1924 immigration law put “quotas” on European immigration (mainly to limit the number of non-Anglo and Nordic “ethnicities”) and established the first U.S.-Mexico border patrol, immigration within the Western Hemisphere remained largely unrestricted until the 1965 immigration law; this attempt to turn back the hands of time and experience has largely been a failure. The hypocrisy of U.S. immigration law continues even to this day, as Mexican labor is used both as an economic and political “convenience,” either for scapegoating or abuse. 

But the great injustice occurred from the start of the Great Depression till the end of World War II, during which an estimated 2 million people of Mexican ancestry—of whom 1.2 million were born either born in the U.S. or otherwise citizens—were “repatriated” to Mexico. Some apologists claim that the “repatriations”—in fact deportations—that occurred during this time were “voluntary” because of economic conditions in the U.S., and others claim that most of those who were “repatriated” back to Mexico who were U.S. citizens were simply children born in the U.S. to Mexican-born parents. But this is a “feel-good” shibboleth, particularly in Texas, and is the kind of thing you would expect from people who claim that the U.S. “bought” Mexican territory after the Mexican-American War out of the goodness of its heart instead of a “take it or leave it.” This was a systematic effort to “solve” an economic problem by focusing on one vulnerable group.

Conditions were bad for everyone during the Great Depression, but make-work and farm laws passed during the New Deal usually included provisions specifically designed to either discomfit those of Mexican heritage, or were sufficiently vague enough to be “interpreted” as offering rationales for excluding them from benefitting from the programs in arbitrary and illegal ways. Furthermore, from 1929 to 1931, Texas with the help of federal agents rounded-up as many “brown-skinned” people as they could handle for deportation. Economic conditions provided a convenient excuse to conduct “ethnic cleansing” operations; like white farmers in California who actively supported the “cleansing” of Japanese farmers from their midst, white farmers in Texas sought to drive any “Mexican” farmers from their lands—and in many counties they succeeded in doing so completely. 

In California, it is estimated that 400,000 U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were driven out of the country, again a fact barely acknowledged by U.S. historians or the public generally. One year into the Great Depression John Quinn, Supervisor from the Fourth District of Los Angeles, spoke for many who believed that the country’s problems could be “solved” merely by deporting as many Mexican “burglars” as possible.  The Harris Mexican Exclusion Bill enjoined Congress to ban “Mexicans” from "obtaining places of employment which should otherwise be given to citizens of the United States." No other race or ethnicity was mentioned, and it is clear that white people regardless of legal status were meant to benefit. The bill, however, at least recognized the complaints of some employers by “allowing” a limited number inside the country for seasonal farm labor, but otherwise sought to exclude all Mexican immigration save for relatives of U.S. citizens (a provision in current immigration law, that is especially abused for the benefit of eastern European and Asian immigrants). Nevertheless, this was still too much for union and labor organizations, who sought to stop “Mexican” immigration altogether, since they saw their labor as a “threat” to their power over employers. 

The attitude that “Mexicans” were second-class residents who had no rights that anyone was bound to respect led to Herbert Hoover (who refused to countenance anything but “free market solutions” to the country’s economic turmoil) making it federal policy to remove all “aliens” from the country. The Secretary of Labor under the Hoover administration, William Doak, sent out raiding parties to seek out and expel every “Mexican” they could find who couldn’t immediately prove citizenship, especially in cities like Los Angeles where the “fishing” was easy. California Gov. Frank Merriam expressed the same sentiments as today’s bigots, like Michelle Malkin, Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan and assorted Tea Party Republicans when he exclaimed that “Mexicans” were a people “whose active willful purpose is to cause disruption of our governmental institutions and destruction of our economic and social organizations.” Interestingly, official and unofficial policy that denied even U.S. citizens of Mexican descent livable employment forced many to seek governmental relief, which in turn allowed anti-Mexican fanatics to claim that they were a “burden” on public finances, and to use that as an excuse to deport them.

U.S. “citizenship” had always been viewed with some ambivalence by many in the Mexican-American community, since it didn’t provide either the “privilege” or the “respect” due one who obeyed all the rules of the game. Being between white and black American prejudice is like being between a sledgehammer and an anvil.  Of the historical work Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by Francisco Balderrama—one of only two books I found on Amazon which dealt specifically with subject (the other was a slim volume published in 1974)—a white reviewer asserted that just because Mexicans were for years classified as “white” by the Census, this afforded them the “privileges” of being “white,” so they have no “reason” to complain about “non-existent” discrimination and prejudice. This bizarre belief merely demonstrates the blindness and hypocrisy that prejudice affords the willfully ignorant. 

On the other side, a black reviewer complained that statements like “Apparently, no matter how inane the charges were, it was ‘open season’ on the Mexican family,” “The raids were sometimes conducted by unscrupulous employers,” and “Mexicans were often accorded rude treatment” showed “bias.” Apparently “Mexicans” are not quite human, so they lack the capacity to define the level of prejudice they encounter, and is “certainly” not on the same level as that of blacks (despite some evidence to the contrary, particularly in the media). This reviewer even had the gall to compare the book to a feminist tome which he called “unbiased”—apparently because it bashes “ethnic” minority males who are not black (because that would be racist), which suits his own attitude. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrat-dominated Congress may have had a “progressive” reputation, but times were tough, and it was almost political suicide during the height of the Great Depression to oppose any federal assistance. But as noted before, most New Deal programs specifically banned even legal immigrants from employment, imposing fines on employers who did so, if they received federal assistance. Since many Mexican-Americans didn’t keep “papers” because of the laxity of prior immigration enforcement, it is no surprise that employers took advantage of the prevailing attitudes by discriminating against even U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage. Due process was rarely afforded a potential repatriate, and if a “Mexican” was accused of complaining about civil or labor rights abuses, this was regarded as “revolutionary” and a menace to public order, and subject to immediate deportation. This was all done with barely a word of protest from civil rights activists. Even so-called “charitable” organizations supported mass deportation, because they could only help “real” Americans.

On the local level, cities and counties conducted their own “raids” of questionable legality. In East Los Angeles, Balderrama notes that these raids were “full-scale paramilitary operations” designed to achieve “maximum success.” Like the current raiding parties conducted by the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, anyone who looked like a “Mexican” were simply locked up.  The Fourth and 14th Amendment rights were routinely violated in the mania for deport as many “Mexicans” as possible. For those unfamiliar with these amendments, they are as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

It was always “guilty” until proven innocent—and often the innocent were not afforded the opportunity or time to “prove” it—quite unlike other groups, including whites who “lost” their birth certificates, and didn’t need them anyways.

Due process “rights”—when they were euphemistically permitted—for those rounded-up were basically the following:

a.       Leave the country without complaint

b.      Leave the country without any chance of returning legally

Those who were deported “without complaint” were enticed to comply with the “promise” that they could return at a “later date.” However, despite the fact that Mexicans were in country to work, those who did agree to leave without an immigration hearing usually found that unknowingly they had been declared “wards of the state” and barred from reentry—the same designation that prevented hundreds of thousands of Jews from escaping the Nazis, despite ample of evidence of death camps.  

Of course, there are those who claim that those deported to Mexico had it “better” than they would have had they stayed in the U.S., because they were allegedly provided with “free land” to start anew, The reality was that those given new “land” was usually nothing more than a barren tract long abandoned with no living dwellings, let alone running water or electricity. Many did not know a word of Spanish, and racism—held particularly strongly by those of “pure” European blood—was hardly different than that encountered in the U.S.

 This attitude also ignored the question of what it means to be an “American”—and all too often “race” and “ethnicity” were the determining factor in the minds of most, and still is. There are many stories of Mexican-Americans who built a good life for themselves, yet because of the federal, state and local vendetta to deprive them of a living in the U.S., found themselves given “no choice” but to abandon their homes and goods, to be lost forever. Those who could prove their right to remain in the country and refused to leave were often ultimately forced to do so because of a lack of employment and systematic harassment both publically and privately.

Obviously, despite such efforts it was impossible and not economically feasible to deport everyone who “looked like a Mexican” without causing some economic instability, especially in labor that even unemployed “real Americans” found beneath their station to do, or were simply unavailable to do.

It is no surprise that this shameful chapter in U.S. history is largely ignored by historians and the media. To shine any light on it would expose the corruption of anti-immigrant rhetoric today, and expose it for what it is: Part of a longstanding American “tradition” of finding scapegoats in its midst to explain ever problem as a diversion from an honest discussion.

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