LOS ANGELES (AP)—Ignacio Pina was 6 when immigration officers invaded his Montana home, held his family behind bars for a week, then herded them onto a train bound for Mexico—a country he and his five siblings had never seen.
“They just kicked us out with what we were wearing,” the U.S.-born Pina recalls more than 70 years later.
It was 1931, the first year of a decadelong effort to remove Mexicans to free up jobs in a U.S. economy mired in the Great Depression. Estimates of the number of people caught in the raids range from 500,000 to 2 million, with researchers agreeing that they included tens of thousands of legal immigrants, as well as children like Pina who were born in the United States.
“Mexican Repatriation,” authorized by President Hoover, targeted areas with large Hispanic populations, mostly in California, Texas and Michigan. It left festering emotional wounds that for many have not healed.
Pina, an 80-year-old retired railroad worker who lives in Bakersfield, Calif., still gets angry when he recalls how his family was uprooted and forced to struggle to survive in a foreign country.
“It’s a feeling I will have until I die,” he said. “This government did a very wrong thing.”
He and others have long sought an apology and official acknowledgment of their plight in U.S. history books. Now, there is a chance they may get their wish.
The California Legislature has passed two bills addressing the issue: One would create a privately funded commission to investigate Mexican Repatriation; the second would open a two-year window for victims to file damage claims.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has until the end of the month to sign the bills, has not disclosed his position, but supporters are optimistic, given his recent appeal to fellow immigrants to join him in the Republican Party.
“One would hope that the governor’s immigrant background would make him more sympathetic,” said Francisco Estrada, the director of public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Last year, then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed legislation that would have reopened the statute of limitations for damage claims, saying it would be more efficient for the state to pay claims directly rather than through litigation. Other critics say cash-strapped governments and businesses can’t afford to compensate people for a long-ago injustice.
“This may sound insensitive, but we do have other pressing problems that we have to attend to at this time,” said State Sen. Bill Morrow, a Republican who voted against both repatriation bills.
Supporters of the measures compare the survivors of the repatriation to the Japanese-Americans held at internment camps during World War II who received an apology and $20,000 in reparations from the U.S. government in 1988. U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill in Congress this year that would investigate the Depression-era deportations and consider whether reparations would be appropriate.
One challenge is that the number of survivors is unknown. Many who were deported never returned to the United States. Those who did are scattered. State Sen. Joseph Dunn, a Democrat who wrote the two state repatriation bills and has researched the topic for two years, estimates that perhaps 50,000 are still alive, although his office has found barely two dozen.
Another question is how much to pay people forced to give up homes and businesses and make a new start in an impoverished country. “There is no dollar amount that could compensate them for what they went through,” said Francisco Balderrama, co-author of “Decade of Betrayal,” a book about the repatriation program.
Still, Dunn argues that the United States has an obligation to address the issue, partly to prevent the future mass deportation of a single ethnic group. “This is a forgotten injustice that needs to be corrected,” he said.
Survivors, meanwhile, say they are eager to see official acknowledgment of their losses. But it needs to happen fast.
One of Pina’s brothers has died, and three of his sisters, who live in Arizona, have health problems. Ruben Jimenez of Whittier, an 80-year-old retired probation officer whose family was forced to leave in 1932, is the only one of nine siblings still living. Others tell of similar losses and favor dropping claims for reparations to save time.
“If I were to get compensation, it wouldn’t help me much because by the time I get it, I’ll be dead,” said Jose Lopez, 77, a retired autoworker in Detroit. “Really, all I want to do is tell the public what happened because a lot of people don’t know.”
It is a common refrain among the survivors, who say the public is largely unaware of their struggles. Pina, who was born in Carbon City, Utah, says he was unable to speak Spanish adequately when he arrived in Mexico and he and his siblings were very different culturally from native-born Mexicans. “They looked at us like freaks,” he recalls. “We didn’t belong there.”