SACRAMENTO—When Ruben Jimenez, now 79 and living in Whittier, was 7 years old, his parents were persuaded by a man from the U.S. government to exchange their nice home in East Los Angeles for 21 acres of what they thought was developed property in Mexicali.
It was the Great Depression and the government agent convinced Jimenez’ father that, because of racism and severe unemployment, he was sure to lose his job with the gas company to an Anglo so he might as well take the deal.
Of course, the Mexican land was not what was promised—there was no house, no running water and no electricity—and his parents had to work the land for years to get anywhere close to the life they had in the United States. Meanwhile, the government sold their Los Angeles property for $10.
“We were taken away from a better living than where we ended up over there,” said Jimenez, who moved back to the U.S. when he was 14 and eventually brought over his parents. “It was a sacrifice. It was something that was imposed on us.”
The Jimenez family was among an estimated 2 million Mexican-Americans, mostly U.S. citizens or legal residents, who were forcibly deported—or forcefully persuaded—to leave the country during the 1930s, in an episode that has long been neglected in history textbooks. About a quarter of them came from California, the largest state to participate in the effort.
Now a bill that is expected to be approved by the state Legislature would start to make amends for that situation.
The bill, by Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, would create a commission to study the forced repatriation in California from 1929 to 1944 and recommend ways for the state to address the injustice, including possibly an apology and reparations program, and more education in public schools.
Another Dunn measure would extend the statute of limitations for two years for surviving victims of the repatriation to sue any California governmental or private organization that may have been involved in the repatriation.
“The only way we are going to ensure as a society that governmental entities are never enticed to go down this route again is if they must in some fashion or another account for their past behavior,” Dunn said. “Particularly when it has resulted in significant damage to citizens of the United States in California.”
It’s not known how many people might file lawsuits if the bill were to pass. Rough estimates by academics are that perhaps 25,000 victims of the repatriation who later returned are now living in California, Dunn said.
The bill would only apply to current California residents who were living in the state when they were repatriated.
Dunn is patterning much of his measure on the U.S. government’s effort in the 1980s to apologize and make reparations to Japanese-Americans who were forced to live in internment camps during World War II.
Under that effort, the government agreed to pay $20,000 in reparations to each surviving victim, in exchange for them not filing class lawsuits.
The bill has attracted opposition from some Republicans, who say it could end up being expensive for the state and that it is difficult to address something that happened so long ago.
“At some point, we’ll run out of taxpayer money to pay for all the problems that happened in America’s past,” said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative group.
“There’s slave reparations to talk about. I know someone who’s Irish who wants to talk about how the Irish were treated when they first came to the United States. We can go on and on. At some point taxpayers will run out of money.”
Dunn’s commission bill was recently approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote and is expected to win approval by the full Legislature soon. The statute of limitations bill is pending in the Senate. Both bills will expire if not acted upon by the end of session Aug. 31.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not yet taken a position on either bill.
According to historians, the repatriation was sparked at the federal level by a Depression-era effort to free up more jobs for “real Americans.”
The federal government started rounding up illegal aliens, but many legal residents were deported as well. Local and state governments also participated in the efforts, particularly in Los Angeles, even when the federal government stopped.
Private groups participated in scare campaigns, in many cases convincing legal residents they would likely get caught up in the immigration roundups so they might as well leave of their own accord.
The effort was particularly concentrated in California and Texas, as well as Michigan where automakers had, prior to the Depression, encouraged Mexicans to immigrate to work in the auto factories.
One of the private entities that could be subject to a lawsuit is the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The group was named as a defendant in a suit last year, but it was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Dunn says historical records show the chamber may have participated in organizing campaigns in support of the deportations.
Chamber officials declined to comment on the legislation because of the possible legal liability. But they provided articles by modern historians that indicate the chamber was, at the least, not as supportive of the repatriation as other groups such as labor unions, because chamber officials supported the use of Mexican labor in the United States.