California Forum

U.S. has tried ‘deportation force’ before … with disastrous results

Luís Torres
Luís Torres

In a typically offhanded and simplistic utterance, presidential wannabe Donald Trump tossed out the idea of forming a huge “deportation force” to round up immigrants and ship them out of the country. The notion is as immoral as it is impractical. Ridiculous and wacko are two words that come to mind.

My parents, who came to this country legally from Mexico in the 1920s, were the victims of a massive deportation roundup similar to what carnival barker Trump is proposing. My parents did nothing wrong, but they were made to feel like hunted criminals.

With his familiar smirk, Trump claimed a massive deportation of immigrants could be carried out simply. He pointed to the effort by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s to send Mexicans back to Mexico. The policy was known officially by the racist name “Operation Wetback.” It was a disaster.

Today Trump wants to round up some 11 million presumably undocumented immigrants and ship them out of the country.

I’d dismiss it as a joke if I didn’t know about a dark chapter of American history that shows something like that was tried before, with terrible results. History shows that we Americans have misplaced our moral compass on more than one occasion. My stepson’s Japanese American grandparents were thrown into concentration camps during World War II.

The general public doesn’t always know its history. But because of Trump’s foolish call for a “deportation force” people are beginning to learn about the ill-fated “Operation Wetback.”

But I bet most Americans don’t know about the even more pernicious historical phenomenon called the Mexican Repatriation.

The Mexican Repatriation was carried out by the Herbert Hoover administration during the 1930s. The U.S. military and local police carried out massive raids in Los Angeles and throughout the country in an attempt to “send the Mexicans back to Mexico.” Without a nod to the guarantees of the Constitution, authorities rounded up more than 1 million men, women and children – most were U.S. citizens.

Mexicans were the convenient scapegoats for the joblessness of the Great Depression. “They are taking our jobs.” Sound familiar?

Historian Francisco Balderrama takes note of this in his comprehensive book about the Repatriation. In “Decade of Betrayal,” he writes: “The wanton disregard of legal constraints in denying deportees their constitutional rights was so flagrant.”

Photos by Dorothea Lange reveal Mexican immigrants being herded into railroad boxcars. The images are disquietingly evocative of trains bound for Auschwitz.

When the Great Depression grabbed this country by the throat my father was a copper miner in Morenci, Ariz. My mother cooked meals in a boardinghouse there.

Police were breaking down doors and shoving Mexicans onto trains and buses. Entire families were deposited at the Mexican border. My mother told me those stories. Rather than wait to be arrested for the “crime” of being Mexican, my parents voluntarily went back to Mexico.

A few years later they made their way back to the United States, eventually coming to California to toil as farmworkers. My family eventually settled in Los Angeles where I was born. The bitterness of the Repatriation never left my mother’s memory.

When I was a kid in the 1960s she would sometimes recall Hoover as el viejo diablo – the old devil. She would also refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ended the Repatriation program, as el hombre bueno – the good man.

So, today before we embark on a policy of repatriation with a Trump-inspired “deportation force,” we might want to examine our country’s history carefully. There is no such thing as a “humane” policy of massive deportations.

Luís Torres is a journalist and author of “Doña Julia’s Children.” He teaches at Los Angeles Mission College.

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