Another Decade of Betrayal?

Francisco Balderrama
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law
For Latina/o Law Students Association

“Why do we have to go to Mexico? I don’t even speak Spanish,” my grandmother said as she looked up at her older brother while they stood on a train platform at Union Station, Los Angeles in 1935. Although she was only six years old, my grandmother knew that something was wrong. Like approximately 2 million other people of Mexican ancestry, my grandmother and her older brother were deported by local officials to Mexico, despite the fact that she was an American citizen by birth. Unfortunately, there are many similarities between the deportation campaigns of the 1930s, or the “Decade of Betrayal,” and the recent anti-immigrant legislation in Alabama.

During the 1930s, a time of severe economic crisis, local authorities at the county and municipal level throughout the United States undertook a campaign to forcibly remove persons of Mexican ancestry from the country. Fueled by fears that immigrants were taking jobs from American citizens, local officials conducted massive raids on Mexican American communities throughout the nation. These raids targeted persons of Latino phenotype even when they were U.S. citizens. It would be an understatement to say that the deportation campaign terrorized Mexican American communities across the nation.

Immigration law is clear that U.S. citizens cannot be deported from the country, regardless of  their conduct. The state of California has even publicly apologized for its participation in the campaign in California Government Code Section 8722.

Although nearly 80 years have passed since “The Decade of Betrayal,” the deportation campaign of the 1930s is still a timely point of discussion because of recent local efforts to enforce federal immigration law. Much like the campaign of the 1930s, states like Alabama have attempted to enforce federal immigration law at the local level in response to nativist fears that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens. Following the example of Arizona when it passed SB 1070 in 2010, Alabama recently passed a similar law this year. The Alabama law requires schools to verify the immigration status of students and to comply with many other enforcement provisions. Most recently, a U.S. district judge  upheld the aforementioned provision of the Alabama law. Although it is only the beginning of this decade, state legislators have introduced or passed bills modeled after Arizona’s anti-immigrant law in Utah, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Alabama. Given this rather high number, the new Alabama law appears to be part of a larger movement across the nation to remove people of Latino descent in this decade.

Historically speaking, the enforcement of federal immigration law at the local level has a disproportionate and enduring effect on Latinos. Some scholars have estimated that the deportation campaign of the 1930s removed  approximately 70% of American citizens of Mexican descent. Researchers believe that this may even explain why the Chicano civil rights movement did not occur until nearly 25 years after the 1960s. Because of the large number of Mexican immigrants, American citizens of Latino descent are often wrongly deported when local immigration officials are responsible for the enforcement of federal immigration law. This has left a persistent culture of fear of the government in Latino communities. Most recently, education officials in Alabama reported a mass exodus of Latino students from its schools. Although a full comparison of the campaign of the 1930s and the recent wave of anti-immigrant legislation far exceed the parameters of this modest article, it is evident that there are many similarities.

Yet the deportation campaign of the 1930s still has a positive lesson for us in 2011. As soon as my grandmother turned eighteen, she left Mexico to return to the United States and established a life for herself in her country of birth. Though she only has a third grade education, all of her children are college graduates and all of her grandchildren will hold graduate degrees.  Unfortunately, many other deportees were unable to return to the United States to reclaim their rightful place in their country of birth as American  citizens. As future lawyers, many of us may be on the front lines on both sides of the immigration debate. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I encourage all of you to remain cognizant of this nation’s long history of anti-immigrant hysteria and its detrimental effects on Latino families.  The Latino community should not have to endure another “Decade of Betrayal.”

Despite its illegality and legislative efforts to educate the public, the deportation campaign of the 1930s still remains outside of the national consciousness decades later.