Blogs on Immigration Law and Policy

by Carl Shusterman

Unlawful Deportations of U.S. Citizens

Today, I read an obituary in the Los Angeles Times entitled "He documented 1930s deportations". As an immigration attorney, and a former INS prosecutor, I wondered "What deportations?".

The obituary was about Raymond Rodriguez (1926-2013), a historian from Long Beach, California who died on June 24. When Raymond was 10-years-old, his father, who had immigrated to the United States in 1918, was deported, never to see his family again.

In 1995, he co-authored a book with university professor Francisco Balderrama entitled "Decade of Betrayal" which focuses on the unlawful deportation of over one million persons to Mexico in the 1930s. To my astonishment, it is estimated that 60% of the people deported to Mexico were U.S. citizens. According to the article, this program was an effort to free up jobs for white Americans during the Great Depression. "Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat. They found it in the Mexican community," as stated in the "Decade of Betrayal".

How could I, as an immigration attorney for almost 40 years be completely ignorant of this? How could hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens be deported? Aren't we a country of laws where citizens and immigrants alike have certain basic rights?

Nevertheless, it is clear that these unlawful deportations are not figments of Mr. Rodriguez's imagination.

Both the State of California and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, but not our Federal Government, have apologized for their roles in the illegal round-ups of citizens, immigrants and their families at dance halls, markets, hospitals, theaters and parks, loading them onto trains and vans and deporting them to Mexico. These illegal raids and deportations occurred all across the U.S. during the 1930s, not just in Southern California.

Former State Senator Joseph Dunn, a self-described "Irish white guy from Minnesota", who sponsored the 2005 legislation in California that apologized for the illegal deportations states that "it is no exaggeration to say that without the scholarly work by Ray (Rodriguez) and Francisco (Balderrama), no one but a handful of individuals would ever know about the illegal deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s".

I plan to buy the book, but in the meantime, I watched two YouTube videos on the subject "Deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s" and "A Forgotten Injustice", read an online newspaper story in USA Today entitled "U.S. Urged to Apologize the 1930s Deportations" and a Wikipedia entry entitled "Mexican Repatriation".

One paragraph of the USA Today story is particularly troubling:

""The slogan has gone out over the city (Los Angeles) and is being adhered to — 'Employ no Mexican while a white man is unemployed,' " wrote George Clements, manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's agriculture department, in a memo to his boss Arthur Arnoll. He said the Mexicans' legal status was not a factor: "It is a question of pigment, not a question of citizenship or right." "

The Wikipedia entry goes into considerable detail about what happened and states that these events are not widely covered in American history textbooks. Of particular interest to me is the following:

"Most people were unconstitutionally denied their legal rights of Due Process and Equal Protection under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment. Any presence of the law was absent whilst hundreds of thousands of people were interrogated and detained by authorities. When it came to federal deportation proceedings, undocumented immigrants, once apprehended, had two options. They could either ask for a hearing or “voluntarily” return back to their native country. The benefit to asking for a hearing was the potential to persuade the immigration officer that if they were returned to their home country they would be placed in a life threatening situation (which was the case for those who had fled the war or were escaping religious persecution) and would be able to stay under the current immigration law as refugees, but if they lost the hearing, they would be barred from ever returning to the United States legally again. Although requesting a hearing was a possibility, immigration officers rarely informed undocumented immigrants of their rights, and the hearings were “official but informal,” in that immigration inspectors “acted as interpreter, accuser, judge, and jury” (Balderrama 67). Moreover, the deportee was seldom represented by a lawyer, a privilege that could only be granted at the discretion of the immigration officer (Balderrama). The second option, which was to voluntarily deport themselves from the US, would allow these individuals to reenter the US legally at a later date because “no arrest warrant was issued and no legal record or judicial transcript of the incident was kept” (Balderrama 79). However, many were being misled and enticed to leave the country by county officials who told Mexicans if they left now they would be able to return later."

This is indeed a sad and shameful chapter of our history, one that deserves to be known and understood by all Americans so that such events will not be repeated now nor in the future.

About The Author Carl Shusterman is a certified Specialist in Immigration Law, State Bar of California. He was a former U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service Attorney and worked for the Board of Governors, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) alone and should not be imputed to ILW.COM.