On Wednesday Donald Trump’s White House announced a proposal for new legislation that would cut the number of legal immigrants to the United States in half and offer preferences to English-speaking immigrants. Given Trump’s xenophobic and anti-Hispanic campaign rhetoric on immigration, some wondered whether the new policies were crafted to limit the entry of certain ethnic groups. Trump’s new policy proposal harkens back to a darker time in the United States. Remembering one particularly underexamined episode from this period helps clarify just how frightening a direction such anti-immigrant policies can turn.
In the midst of one of this country’s worst anti-immigrant backlashes in the 1920s, a small portion of Washington state exploded. It was November 1927, and a mob was demanding the immediate deportation of foreign farmworkers. The immigrants were taking away jobs. Worse still, the imported workers were criminals, they said. And despite the efforts of local police, the workers were “bothering” white women on the streets.
Little is remembered today about the anti-immigrant “deportations” of Filipino workers from the fields of Washington’s Yakima Valley in 1927, but the story is more relevant than it has ever been. The men of the mob believed that since the Filipinos were brown-skinned and Asian, they should not be permitted to approach white women or compete with white men for jobs. The economic and sexual fears of the men were clear and openly expressed.
How did these 1927 deportations, now familiar to only a handful of researchers, end up erased from our history? Certainly the memory of these incidents is inconvenient and shameful, particularly the memory of the violence against the future comrades in arms of American soldiers at Corregidor and Bataan. Importantly, the racism underlying this shameful period of mass deportations is still with us—has never really left us.