His father and oldest sister were farming sugar beets in the fields of Hamilton, Mont., and his mother was cooking tortillas when 6-year-old Ignacio Piña saw plainclothes authorities burst into his home.
“They came in with guns and told us to get out,” recalls Piña, 81, a retired railroad worker in Bakersfield, Calif., of the 1931 raid. “They didn’t let us take anything,” not even a trunk that held birth certificates proving that he and his five siblings were U.S.-born citizens.
The family was thrown into a jail for 10 days before being sent by train to Mexico. Piña says he spent 16 years of “pure hell” there before acquiring papers of his Utah birth and returning to the USA.
The deportation of Piña’s family tells an almost-forgotten story of a 1930s anti-immigrant campaign. Tens of thousands, and possibly more than 400,000, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were pressured—through raids and job denials—to leave the USA during the Depression, according to a USA TODAY review of documents and interviews with historians and deportees. Many, mostly children, were U.S. citizens.
If their tales seem incredible, a newspaper analysis of the history textbooks used most in U.S. middle and high schools may explain why: Little has been written about the exodus, often called “the repatriation.”
That may soon change. As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on bills that would either help illegal workers become legal residents or boost enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, an effort to address deportations that happened 70 years ago has gained traction:
•On Thursday, Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill in the U.S. House that calls for a commission to study the “deportation and coerced emigration” of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The panel would also recommend remedies that could include reparations. “An apology should be made,” she says.
Co-sponsor Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., says history may repeat itself. He says a new House bill that makes being an illegal immigrant a felony could prompt a “massive deportation of U.S. citizens,” many of them U.S.-born children leaving with their parents.
“We have safeguards to ensure people aren’t deported who shouldn’t be,” says Jeff Lungren, GOP spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, adding the new House bill retains those safeguards.
•In January, California became the first state to enact a bill that apologizes to Latino families for the 1930s civil rights violations. It declined to approve the sort of reparations the U.S. Congress provided in 1988 for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.
Democratic state Sen. Joe Dunn, a self-described “Irish white guy from Minnesota” who sponsored the state bill, is now pushing a measure to require students be taught about the 1930s emigration. He says as many as 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were coerced into leaving, 60% of them U.S. citizens.
•In October, a group of deportees and their relatives, known as los repatriados, will host a conference in Detroit on the topic. Organizer Helen Herrada, whose father was deported, has conducted 100 oral histories and produced a documentary. She says many sent to Mexico felt “humiliated” and didn’t want to talk about it. “They just don’t want it to happen again.”
No precise figures exist on how many of those deported in the 1930s were illegal immigrants. Since many of those harassed left on their own, and their journeys were not officially recorded, there are also no exact figures on the total number who departed.
At least 345,839 people went to Mexico from 1930 to 1935, with 1931 as the peak year, says a 1936 dispatch from the U.S. Consulate General in Mexico City.
“It was a racial removal program,” says Mae Ngai, an immigration history expert at the University of Chicago, adding people of Mexican ancestry were targeted.
However, Americans in the 1930s were “really hurting,” says Otis Graham, history professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. One in four workers were unemployed and many families hungry. Deporting illegal residents was not an “outrageous idea,” Graham says. “Don’t lose the context.”