The Sunday Magazine

Over a million Mexican-Americans were expelled in the 1930s. Now, history is repeating itself

“One key factor to keep in mind, as we deal with the Trump era, as we we deal with the activities of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] today, is that there is this legacy,” says historian Francisco Balderrama.
A migrant family on the road with tire trouble, February 1936. (Photograph by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA Project)

When Francisco Balderrama hears U.S. President Donald Trump demonize Mexican-Americans and promise to deport undocumented immigrants to bring back jobs, he is reminded of a forgotten chapter in American history — one he has spent decades trying to bring back into the light.

In the 1930s, the United States expelled more than a million Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent.

Some were rounded up in mass raids and deported, often without due process. Others were worn down by threats and economic deprivation, and lured back by the hollow promise of a better life in Mexico.

"Many of them had been in this country for 20, 25 years. They had created lives here. They had contributed to American society in prosperous times. Most of them were documented, or had come in legally to the United States. They had children that were born here — automatically, by birth, U.S. citizens," Balderrama says.

Historian Francisco Balderrama says the mass expulsion in the 1930s offers a cautionary tale about what happens when a government makes immigrants into scapegoats during a period of economic turmoil. (Courtesy Francisco Balderrama)
Balderrama is professor emeritus of American History and Chicano Studies at California State University in Los Angeles, and the co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. He spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about the parallels he sees between what happened in the 1930s and what's happening today.

"One key factor to keep in mind, as we deal with the Trump era, as we we deal with the activities of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] today, is that there is this legacy," Balderrama says.

"A lot of times, the language that Trump uses, the language that Attorney General Sessions uses, is the same type of language that was used in the 1930s."

The Great Depression

Balderrama says the wave of deportations was triggered by the Great Depression. Many Americans believed that if Mexicans were removed from the workforce, they would have an easier time finding work.

"Mexicans were the last hired, and they were going to be the first fired," says Balderrama.

At the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was run by the Department of Labour. Herbert Hoover's labour secretary William Doak launched a plan to create more jobs for "real Americans" by expelling immigrants.

Organized raids, Balderrama says, created a climate of fear, discouraging Mexicans from leaving their homes.

On February 26, 1931, immigration officers stormed La Placita, the historic founding area for the City of Los Angeles, and rounded up everyone in the park.

While the raid didn't result in a large number of deportations, Balderrama believes the real impact was to create a sense of terror and anxiety.

"The city of Los Angeles — which had and has the largest Mexican population — became a very fearful place," he says. "People would not go out. People locked themselves up. Mexican businesses closed."

"[It] created a scenario in which the local LA County then was free to encourage Mexicans to accept railroad tickets and to go to Mexico."


Most Mexican-Americans who left during the 1930s were driven out by local governments and agencies.

Only the federal government had the legal authority to order deportations, but local agencies were able to pressure many people into "self-deporting." Some states also passed laws prohibiting the employment of "aliens," which gave Mexican nationals an additional incentive to leave.

The repatriation of Mexican men, women, and children from the railway station in Los Angeles. (Security Pacific Historical Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

"To cut the welfare cost in their community, and also to create jobs for American citizens, [local agencies] rounded up Mexican families and told them, 'You would be better off in Mexico'... Ford Motor company, U.S. Steel, Southern Pacific Railroad — the private sector — told their workers the same story. 'You would be better off in Mexico with your own people,'" Balderrama says.

"There were a number of individuals who, reading the newspaper, hearing about the raids, hearing about the non-hiring of Mexicans, then decide, 'The hell with it, the hell with this situation. We're not wanted here.' They then pack up their belongings and just drive themselves to the border."

'Returning' to a new country

After years of living in the United States, many Mexicans returned to a country they didn't recognize.

"They [were] going to a new nation, a new Mexico," Balderrama says.

He says the transition was particularly traumatic for children who had grown up in the United States. One of the people he interviewed for the revised edition of Decade of Betrayal was a man named Ignacio Piña, who was born in Idaho and expelled to Mexico with his family when he was a child.

His family had been in the United States for approximately 25 years. Shortly before Piña's first day of school, sheriffs came to his family's house and took them into custody. After spending a week in jail, the family was placed on a train and sent back to Mexico — without any of their belongings or documentation about their legal status in the United States.

Ignacio Piña was born in Idaho and expelled to Mexico with his family in 1930s, when he was just a child.

Though it took Piña many years to make it back to the United States, he desperately wanted to return to the country he thought of as home.

"Ignacio recently died, and as a senior citizen would still have nightmares over what happened to him," Balderrama says.

Balderrama sees disturbing parallels between the Trump era and America’s forgotten history of mass deportations. (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/Associated Press)

Parallels to today

Balderrama sees strong parallels between what happened to Ignacio Piña and the experiences of 'Dreamers' today.

"It's the very same dynamics," he says.

"Individuals that are American, that have been socialized, have been here long enough, have been exposed to this culture, who have an ability in the language that surrounds them here, that are part of the fabric of American society ... we're cutting them out of this society, tossing them away."

Balderrama believes that this process does more than tear apart the families and lives of those directly affected.

"We are not only hurting them," he says. "We're hurting what makes up this country — what makes this country what it is."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.