Aliens or Citizens?
A Review of Abraham Hoffman’s Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression
Abraham Hoffman became interested in Mexican-American heritage during his early childhood in Los Angeles. He obtained primary sources from government and university archives and from these sources gained information to piece together the ignored portion of Mexican American history during the Great Depression.
BY JANA ZAIDAN
Starving families turned to local and federal relief in desperation during the Great Depression. The 1929 Stock Market Crash resulted in the worst depression in the history of American economy. Banks failed, people lost jobs, and confidence plummeted. As the government attempted to provide local relief, some ethnic groups were not considered—minorities such as Mexican Americans were blatantly neglected. Unfortunately, Abraham Hoffman, the author of Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures 1929-1939, notes that “serious inquiries into Mexican-American history are few and far between.”1 There is a lack of information on Western immigration, and almost none on Mexican repatriation—another result of the Great Depression. In this book, Hoffman focuses on the Mexican repatriados of Southern California during the depression and “spotlights the federal and local bureaucratic procedures by which more than four hundred thousand people made the trip in a six-year period.”2 Hoffman’s work serves to help remedy the dearth of information on the pressures that Mexican-Americans felt during the Great Depression. Throughout the book, he places the information in a historical context rather than a sociological analysis, and illustrates the absurdity of the belief that deporting Mexicans would ease the Great Depression along with the only relative success the repatriation movement achieved.
Hoffman sets the scene in Los Angeles, California in the midst of an intense government search for illegal immigrants. The southwestern immigration service officers looked for Mexican Americans while local welfare agencies encouraged Mexicans to volunteer for repatriation to ease their own load. However, many Mexicans returned on their own accord and achieved varying levels of success . Hoffman points out that mistakes of the Immigration and Naturalization Service along with “raids of immigration agents undertaken in 1971 against illegal Mexican aliens, have a precedent dating back over four decades”—from the 1930s.3 Hoffman then returns to give background information, backtracking to the 1880s when Mexican immigration escalated as demand for railroad laborers increased. Encouraged by opportunity and escape from the uncertainty and dislocation that resulted from the Mexican Revolution, Mexicans began traveling to the United States in larger numbers. However, many stereotypes existed of Mexican labor. Playing on this Mexican stereotype, Clements, one spokesman for unrestricted entry of Mexican labors, influenced the accessibility of the ‘back door’ for immigration. Widespread Mexican communities developed as a result of the “nomadic nature of migrant work.”4 Some Americans however, such as Samuel Bryans, argued that the large number of Mexican immigrants overshadowed any benefit reaped from the cheaper and flexible elastic supply of labor because they had no social value. Mexicans were unjustly grouped together, with little distinction between individuals. In addition, immigrants encountered obstacles such as the disparities between laws, customs, language, and the bare necessities of finding work and shelter. Many employment opportunities required full citizenship, yet Mexicans were reluctant to become American citizens. Although attempts were made to relate and refute these harmful Mexican stereotypes through intellectual studies, Mexicans made little headway—in fact, their situation only worsened. Hoffman closed America’s back door and began the process of repatriation. The U.S. State Department began enforcing provisions of the Immigration Act of 1917, which required applications for visas, money, and literacy. Yet bootlegging—the smuggling in of illegal immigrants—continued, and in attempt to hinder bootlegging, the Border Patrol was established and visas were refused. To add to their burdens, Mexican-Americans were the first to be dismissed from their jobs. Mexican politics discouraged organized repatriation, but the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Immigration relentless targeting of Mexicans persisted.
Hoffman then proceeds to discuss the new local, private, and federal government campaigns for threatened deportation in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, the mayor Visel, who held authority over the committee, utilized scare tactics to drive foreign aliens to leave on their own accord. Public support for deportation heightened, especially when the Independent Order of Veterans of Los Angeles depicted deportation as a means of relieving joblessness. Supervisor John R. Quinn claimed that this policy would also eliminate the “Red” problem, referring to aliens with radical political views. As rumors spread that repatriation was aimed toward Mexican Americans, Visel encountered a dissatisfied Mexican government; both Clements and Visel denied the claim to avoid charges of discrimination. The media swallowed this interpretation and enlarged its meaning. However, Mexicans still mistrusted official statements and went into hiding, while several thousand other Mexicans were questioned. As significant raids continued with the City Plaza raid and “Doak’s declaration of war against deportable aliens” intensified, supervisor Watkins rented buses to provide for voluntary departure. Watkins achieved a measurable amount of success as 230 aliens were deported the first time. However, Watkin’s actions lost federal endorsement, and the Bureau of Immigration resumed control. The Bureau abused its power as it deported individuals who disagreed with the Hoover administration. Meanwhile District Director Carr continued to repeat the original non-discriminatory intentions, even though the “local repatriation program…had blurred into a mass movement of Mexicans…departing from the region.”5 Business relations with Mexico deteriorated at this time, and criticism increased. The Mexican Embassy complained that the Mexicans were becoming concentrated in places where it was difficult to live, and newspapers such as Excelsior accused Carr of scaring Mexicans away because of the misconception that it would ease the depression.
Continuing chronologically , Hoffman gives a thorough explanation of repatriation, and how the local welfare and private charities—instead of government agencies—took responsibility for the repatriation movement. Furthermore, an increase in voluntary deportation occurred because of the poverty, discrimination, uncertainty to status, and the threat of not receiving help. With the cooperation of the Mexican consulate and county-sponsored trains, repatriation efforts expanded. However, there was confusion between departing Mexicans, primarily between those with relief and those without. Once in Mexico, the Mexican Americans’ chances of returning to LA were almost impossible. Even the Mexican children born in America, legitimate citizens of the United States, could be restricted from returning. Shipments soon became routine, and Supervisor Frank Shaw reassured the public that although repatriating Mexicans was expensive, the U.S. remained economically stable. He also asserted that the purpose of deportation was not to abandon the Mexicans, but to “return” them “to their destination or homes in Mexico.”6 However, shipments soon reached a hiatus. Although new efforts continued to encourage repatriation movements, the peak in 1931 had already passed—the last attempt on a grand scale remaining with Thomson, Deputy Superintendent, and Mexican Nationals were unresponsive. Many excuses appeared in regards to treatment of Mexicans, including that nationality was based on culture, that they were an unwanted group, and that they received a disproportionate share of relief cases—all were unqualified assertions. Overall, the LA repatriation program proved to be the most ambitious organization for returning Mexicans, but it ultimately failed to open more job opportunities or stimulate the economy as originally desired.
Hoffman soon expands the discussion to repatriation across the country. Approaching vast proportions in 1929, Mexicans were being deported by the millions from cities across the U.S. Pathways in the southwest were determined by existing railway tracks—the largest number coming from Texas—while repatriation from the northern states occurred to remove the Mexican problem from relief rolls and school. The removal of Mexicans by the Labor Department was more extensive than the removal of any other ethnic group. The Mexicans who left the United States were separated into four groups: deported, voluntary, legal, and those participating in repatriation programs. After the New Deal programs, Mexican-Americans’ reluctance to return increased. This forced deportation attracted criticism, as“editorials bitterly attacked United States imperialism” and their treatment of Mexicans.8 The Mexican government did much to alleviate circumstances surrounding repatriates to remedy the lack of help from the United States. Attempts at problem solving included the National Repatriation Committee, which achieved instant popularity and succeeded in raising funds, and colonization projects. Hoffman also displays the impact of the repatriation movement on individuals, including the plight of Mexican American children who suffered from cultural dislocation. By 1937, repatriation had lost its significance as a mass movement. Afterward, repatriation efforts came from the Mexican government. One Mexican official, Beteta, visited U.S. Barrios to attract Mexicans to their new repatriation programs, but excitement quickly abated. In Los Angeles, Thomson’s special repatriation unit continued their futile effort. Questions regarding the sick arose, but the Mexican government refused to accept responsibility for ill Mexican-Americans. Overall, the repatriation movement had faded away, and all deportation efforts ended with the Los-Angeles Mexico Accord, to which Mexico and LA agreed to cooperate in order to settle alien matters. However, agreements in the accord were soon forgotten, despite the end of the repatriation movement.
Hoffman’s book on the repatriation pressures placed on Mexican Americans opens awareness to the effects of the Great Depression on minority groups in the United States. Motivated by the desire to lessen the absence of knowledge of immigration and Mexican Americans during the 1930s, Hoffman conveys the failures of the repatriation movement and the unnecessary harm it caused to the Mexicans, let alone solve the Depression. Although he admits that repatriation movements saved money and that it reached unprecedented heights in 1931, he reminds the reader that the deportation of these Mexican-Americans failed to benefit Americans. Hoffman also notes the irony of sending off jobless Mexican-Americans, and its improving the lack of employment available. Yet Hoffman does view the situation objectively by conducting his research from a variety of resources. He takes into account the unreliability of statistics at the time because of the confusion of laws, the vast amount of immigrants, the inability to keep accurate estimates of those immigrating in and out of the United States because of unreported illegal immigration, and because of the misconceptions spread by the media. He carefully scrutinizes conclusions made by officials at the time, and compares data in order to get as close to the truth as possible. Nevertheless, Hoffman clearly believes that repatriation caused more problems than it solved. He tries to facilitate reader comprehension, especially when regarding the difference between deportation and repatriation, subtly displaying his investigative attitude. During the time Hoffman was writing the book—the 1970s—raids conducted by immigration agents against illegal Mexican aliens were also quite common. Renewed interest in Mexican illegal immigration had arisen, and the Immigration and Naturalization service became impatient in their attempts to understand unique problems regarding Mexican-Americans. As a result, tragedies occurred. The deportation of a Mexican-American citizen, a young mentally retarded boy, caused the boy to tread penniless in Mexico City without medication or food. Thus, Hoffman asserts his negative impression of repatriation and deportation of immigrants, and traced such incidents back to the 1930s.
Manuel P. Servin compliments Hoffman’s book as one of the exceptions to the badly researched and poorly written books on Mexican Americans. Servin approved of Hoffman’s thorough research, commenting on both Hoffman’s historical perspective and the clarity in his organization. Servin also notes on Hoffman’s ability to expand his argument as he discusses repatriation across the United States and the impact on Mexico. He congratulates Hoffman along with the University of Arizona Press, regarding the book as a “solid contribution to American ethnic history.”9 Similarly, Matt Meir emphasizes the importance of Hoffman’s work, describing the topic as one of the most significant aspects of large population movements during the 20th century. Meir also admires Hoffman’s extensive research and welcomes the “beginning to a long-needed historical investigation in depth of the repatriation of Mexican nationals,” remarking on his clear organization of ideas as well.10 However, Meir critiques that the story lacks any “human dimension.”11 According to Meir, the narrative’s overall effect could be greatly improved with stories of individuals who lived through the movement. He also disagrees with Hoffman in the sense that he disqualifies the numbers of those repatriated in 1931 as unprecedented, and that the distinguishing aspect of the movement lies in the social, economic, and political circumstances surrounding the repatriados. Yet, both critiques agree of the beneficial addition Hoffman’s book has served to Mexican-American history.
Hoffman’s narrative, although extremely well organized with chapters divided into smaller sections and obscure topics explained both within the text and within the appendix, remains confusing because of the overwhelming amount of information presented in the form of names, numbers, and statistics. The narrative lacks chronological organization and resembles a compilation of facts. Although Hoffman explains his topic clearly, his opinions are unclear and obscure, like his thesis. However, Hoffman does an extraordinary job of clearing common misconceptions and gives a surfeit of data. He distinguishes between the different types of deportation and repatriation, and gives a definition of each in the appendix, further helping the reader understand the obscure information within his book. Overall, Hoffman’s main strength is the extensive information he provides, but his main weakness comes from the lack of a story, thus failing to captivate the reader’s attention.
The repatriation movement marked a change in American political, economic and cultural history because it set a precedent toward the government’s treatment of foreign aliens—specifically with Mexican-Americans. The federal government encouraged the repatriation movement, and even came to the aid of local agencies such as Visel’s. However, the federal government soon withdrew from repatriation after 1932. The repatriation movement also signified the extent of the desperation during the economic slump of the 1930s, as they sought to relieve the rest of America by removing the Mexican-Americans from relief loads and job opportunities—a futile attempt which improved virtually nothing. It also illuminated the stereotypes and prejudice the Mexican-Americans endured during this time period. The author shows how the movement restricted and limited their ability to progress. The Mexican-Americans, hammered down by the U.S. government, are not to blame. In the past, Americans welcomed Mexican labor because of the affordability, but Americans’ views shifted drastically in accord with shifting economic conditions. Today, illegal immigration continues to be an issue, with conflicts at the border between California and Mexico.
Hoffman’s analysis of the significance of this movement is qualified. Because the movement was the largest population trend during the 20th century, its effects remain long lasting, both politically and culturally, despite its failure to bring any improvements to the economy. Repatriation drew attention to politicians and aroused many misconceptions. On the other hand, critiques of the movement began refuting stereotypes, drawing attention to their existence. Thus the movement changed previously held practices and ideas as it caused restrictions on Mexican immigration to intensify, restrictions that continue today—despite continuing attempts to find a solution.
With the economy suffering from the current recession today, the experiences in the Great Depression such as the ones involving the repatriation pressures placed on Mexican Americans allow previous mistakes to be avoided. Unfortunately, problems regarding the lack of border control, and illegal immigration still plague the United States, especially in California. Abraham Hoffman and his book shed a light on some of the issues regarding aliens today.
1: Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures 1929-1939. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press 1979. xiii.
Jana Zaidan was born on September 11, 1993 in Atlanta, Georgia. Currently attending Irvine High, Jana enjoys reading and writing, along with playing tennis. She is on the tennis and track team. She participates in honor clubs and volunteers at the animal shelter.
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