• History
  • Immigration

Citizens Facing Deportation Isn’t New. Here’s What Happened When the U.S. Removed Mexican-Americans in the 1930s

7 minute read

As the Trump Administration continues its focus on the border, immigrants living in the U.S. have spent months on edge, worried about planned raids and an increased focus on deportation. And in some cases, even being a U.S. citizen has not proved to be a reason to feel safe.

In a case that garnered national attention — and questioning last week during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that was supposed to be about the separation of families — U.S. citizen Francisco Erwin Galicia was released from immigration detention on July 23 after more than 20 days in custody at the South Texas Detention Facility. In March of this year, a 9-year-old U.S. citizen was detained at a Southern California checkpoint for more than 30 hours after crossing the border from Tijuana while authorities verified her identity. And in April 2018, Peter Sean Brown, also a U.S. citizen, faced deportation to Jamaica after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confused him for someone with the same name. Brown spent just over three weeks in a Florida county jail before being released, according to a lawsuit.

A total of 834 U.S. citizens were issued ICE detainers — which allow local law enforcement to detain people on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University. A detainer is how Brown was held in county jail despite evidence that he was born in the U.S.

In all three of these recent headline-making cases, those with their citizenship status questioned were able to return home. But this isn’t the first time U.S. citizens have faced the threat of deportation — and its reality. It is estimated that about 2 million people, 60% of whom were American citizens of Mexican descent, were removed to Mexico as part of a Depression-era effort known as repatriation, according to the state of California, though the exact number is unknown and estimates range.

“We’re really talking about an over-100-year history of expulsion of people,” says Francisco Balderrama, a co-author with Raymond Rodríguez of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. “Frankly, I think if the American public, particularly politicians, understood this, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now with this happening again.”

Balderrama estimates the number of repatriated people was closer to one million.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. government had begun restricting immigration from Europe and Asia, eventually only allowing a certain number of immigrants from those regions. As the immigrant population from those countries declined, the demand for immigrant labor helped encourage Mexicans to emigrate north.

But as the U.S. economic situation declined, especially after the stock market crashed in 1929, the new arrivals became scapegoats in communities throughout the country that were experiencing the crisis of the Great Depression. Rhetoric began to shift, and now Americans argued that Mexicans were taking American jobs, and a notion developed that Mexicans would be better off with their own people, Balderrama says. (In fact, a 2017 research paper inspired by Balderrama’s work found that repatriation did not lead to a significant number of non-Mexican Americans moving into the jobs they left behind — and that in fact the program could further damage the economies of the places it affected.)

At that time, Balderrama says, no distinction was made between Mexican immigrants arriving with documents (as a majority did), their children born in the U.S. and the Mexican-American families had who lived in the West and Southwest for generations before those territories became part of the U.S.

“That population was regarded as not being part of the American community,” Balderrama says. “What develops is this notion and idea that a Mexican is a Mexican.”

It was in this atmosphere that the Herbert Hoover Administration announced a series of deportation programs and began conducting large public raids in major cities. These raids also swept up U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Though no federal law or act was passed allowing for the mass deportation of U.S. citizens, local governments in cities like the Los Angeles and Detroit, as well as companies like Southern Pacific Railroad and the Ford Motor Company, also took it upon themselves to begin putting people on trains to Mexico, ignoring the fact that only the federal government held the power of deportation.

“It’s painted in a patriotic way, in a humanitarian way: We’re going to send these people back to Mexico where they can be with their own people, where they can speak their own language, where they can even eat their own food,” Balderrama says.

Once in Mexico, which was still recovering from the Mexican Revolution, the government accepted those who had been repatriated, including U.S. citizens, under the assumption that many were industrial laborers and could help grow the labor force in Mexico. Many of the repatriated, however, instead went to rural parts of Mexico and became agricultural workers, Balderrama says — and those whose testimony he took for his book say that many lost their money and possessions, and even their lives, in the process of removal.

Many of the repatriated found themselves struggling to find social acceptance in Mexico as well, according to Dennis Bixler-Márquez, director of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“There was this notion of, que se quedan allá [let them stay over there],” Bixler-Márquez tells TIME. “The notion is, ‘Those people decided to go to the U.S., they abandoned the country, they even thought they were a lot better because they had dollars, well let them stay over there, let them pay the consequences for having left.'”

Those who had voluntarily repatriated to Mexico during this time were supposed to be allowed to return to the U.S. later, but were given forms that said they were considered a burden on the state, jeopardizing their ability to return, Bixler-Márquez says. Some attempted to return to the U.S. but were missing documents like birth certificates.

In 2005, about a decade after the publication of the first edition of Decade of Betrayal, the state of California passed the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program, which declares that, “The State of California apologizes…for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights committed during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration. The State of California regrets the suffering and hardship those individuals and their families endured as a direct result of the government sponsored Repatriation Program of the 1930s.”

Many Chicano history programs throughout the country teach the events of Mexican repatriation, but the history remains widely unknown, Balderrama and Bixler-Márquez say. Even so, the impacts can still be felt today.

“What happened to those families is passed on from one generation to another,” Balderrama, who interviewed direct descendants of the repatriation, says. “Some of those families locked away what had happened. Some of the people who found their way back to the United States anglicized their names. They were concerned with marrying people that were not Mexican. They wanted to move out of the Mexican community.”

“The scars of that psychologically on this population are deep,” he adds. “That has a ripple effect into other generations.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com