Always an Immigrant Nation
Any day now, with a good bit of fanfare no doubt, the United States will cross another milestone in its 230-year history. As of this writing, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census population clock, there are 299,094,419 of us. Factoring in birth rates, death rates and migration, the bureau estimates a net gain in population of one every 10 seconds. It is being widely reported that the 300 millionth American stands an excellent chance of being Hispanic— the fastest growing minority in the country—either born in the USA or a newly minted legal resident.
As the debate on immigration reform raged this spring, another milestone became evident in the streets of cities across America. The bold demonstrations by Mexican Americans and others supporting reforms to smooth the transition of now illegal aliens to legal status is a manifestation of numbers and emerging political power. Fierce resistance to these reforms is embraced by a wide spectrum of Americans feeling besieged by the flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico and outraged that border laws are not being enforced.
America’s love-hate relationship with immigrants is nothing new, and today’s debate is a recurring echo from the past. Ironically, those who decry each new tide of immigration are indebted to their forebearers who embarked on similar journeys with the same dreams. In this issue we examine immigration’s ebbs and flows and how policies have swung wildly from openness to exclusion—driven mostly by the economic needs of the times but always stoked by the ever-present scourge of prejudice and racism.
That potent mixture led to a dark—and mostly forgotten—episode in American history. The Great Depression’s economic havoc led communities across the country to turn on their immigrant populations, who they now saw as taking the few jobs available from “real” Americans. Beyond a wave of massive raids on immigrant communities by federal authorities and stepped-up deportations of illegals, there emerged in the 1930s an even more insidious crusade that underscores the peril minorities face during times of widespread fear and panic. The “voluntary,” community-driven Repatriation Movement, rooted in Los Angeles but branching across America, “encouraged” Mexicans to return to their homeland. As reported in our cover story, that encouragement often took the form of coercion, intimidation, treachery and trickery, coupled with a sanctioned and shameless disregard for the rights of legal American citizens—possibly as many as 1.2 million—who were driven from their homes, their country.
Last October, led by the efforts of state Senator Joe Dunn, California passed a law expressing a state apology for the 1930s removals and commemorating the deportees. In April, California Congresswoman Hilda Solis introduced H.R. 5161, The Commission on Mexican American Removal During 1929-1941 Act, to “investigate the removal of as many as two million Mexican Americans from the United States during the Great Depression.” While 75 years may have passed, the same viral passions that succeeded in forcing citizens out of their own country remain. Though not a cure-all, knowledge can serve as a potent preventative to a relapse.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.