Memory  /  Q&A

America's Forgotten History Of Mexican-American 'Repatriation'

During the Depression, more than a million people of Mexican descent were deported. Author Francisco Balderrama says that most were American citizens.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump has proposed immigration reform that would include building a wall on the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico, and calls for the mass deportation of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. The deportation plan has echoes of a largely forgotten chapter of American history when, in the 1930s, during the Depression, about a million people were forced out of the U.S. across the border into Mexico. It wasn't called deportation. It was euphemistically referred to as repatriation, returning people to their native country. But about 60 percent of the people in the Mexican repatriation drive were actually U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Perhaps the most widely cited book on the subject was co-written by my guest, Francisco Balderrama. The book is called "Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s." His late co-author, Raymond Rodriguez, had family that was forced out of the U.S. Balderrama is a professor of American history and Chicano studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

Francisco Balderrama, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you give us an overview of the scope of the mass deportations or the repatriation of the 1930s? Like, how many people were affected? And of those people, how many of them were actually American citizens?

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Well, conservatively, we're talking about over 1 million Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent from throughout the United States, from the American Southwest to the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest to the South, even Alaska included. This occurred on a number of different levels through a formal deportation campaign at the federal government, then also efforts by major industries as well as efforts on the local and state level. Conservatively, we are able to estimate that 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

GROSS: So what was behind these deportations? Was it the Depression?

BALDERRAMA: Well, the Depression set the scenario for what happened. I think one needs to keep in mind that in the American public at that time, Mexicans were targeted as a scapegoat partly because they are the most recent immigrant group to come to the United States in the early 20th century.