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Edmundo Rocha

The Emergence of Mass Deportation: Lessons from the Past

Advocates for "enforcement only" would like nothing better than to see a future in which most of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US be removed, either through coercive means or voluntarily. In a climate of fear and defensiveness, there is a psychological need to assign blame and fight back against the perceived bad guy. It’s not the first time that fear has triggered the adoption of tough immigration policies. For example, it was economic insecurity that triggered the racism that contributed to the passage of the infamous laws excluding Chinese immigrants from the US in the late 1800s.

The general invisibility of Latina/o civil rights abuses during the last century has left a large majority of Americans unaware of the forced removal of approximately one to two million persons from the United States during the Great Depression. The 1930s marked the first time in the history of international migration between the US and other countries that the federal government sponsored and supported the mass deportation of immigrants.

Unfortunately, throughout US history, when harsh measures are done in the name of national security, it is often directed at unpopular ethnic/racial minorities. It is easy to draw a parallel between the repatriation of the 1930s and the internment of the Japanese to the measures taken by the US government after September 11 because the policies that were passed after 9/11 proved to be no different. Racial profiling in this sense is a tool that Americans turn to when a perceived outsider threatens to damage the status quo.

Within hours of the declaration of war on Japan, all Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans who were in the US were branded "alien enemies." Approximately 120,000 men, women, elderly, and children of Japanese ancestry, of which 60% were native-born citizens, were sent to interment camps. According to the US Department of Justice's "Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II: Report to the Congress of the United States," within a few days after President issued Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527, 500 aliens of different ancestries were on a train with darkened windows bound for an undisclosed location in Montana.

During the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, approximately 60 percent of those deported to Mexico were US citizens; many of them were children forced to leave the country because their immigrant parents were being deported. It is estimated that one to two million people were deported from the US. Twelve states - Colorado, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - all lost over half of its Mexican population, while Indiana lost three-fourths.

In “Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s,” Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríquez documents the historical events surrounding that time. During the mass deportation campaign of the 1930s, both the Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant communities were profoundly impacted. Families were torn apart; deportees lost their personal property, automobiles, homes, businesses, and other investments in America; and lives were destroyed.

The deportation campaign of the 1930s is part of a long history of "enforcement only" immigration policies that have violated the civil rights of persons of Mexican ancestry in the US. In Operation Wetback, another mass deportation campaign, over one million Mexican immigrants, as well as United States citizens of Mexican ancestry, and undoubtedly other Latinas and Latinos, were deported. The 1996 immigration legislation has resulted in increased border enforcement that has led hundreds, if not thousands, border deaths and a dramatic rise in deportations.

The current fervor against immigrant groups is eerily reminiscent to the anti-Mexican sentiments of the 1930s. FBI reports on domestic hate crimes after 2001 indicate that such crimes against Latinas and Latinos surged from 2003 to 2006.

The vitriolic attacks has succumbed Latinas and Latinos to the worst kind of racial profiling and scapegoating.

Central to these attacks have to do with demographic shift resulting from immigration. Media figures such as Fox Channel talk show host Bill O’Reilly have proclaimed that “the supporters [of immigration reform] hate America and want to flood the country with foreign nationals to change the complexion of our society.” CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs, has repeatedly warned against an “illegal alien invasion” and has included reports from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a national white supremacist organization, for expert opinion.

Currently, immigrants are rounded up and herded into overcrowded detention camps awaiting their deportations. Although “racial profiling is clearly not limited to use in immigration settings, it has profoundly affected legal and undocumented immigrants as well as citizens because they look or speak as if they could be from another country.

The hasty process of providing the necessary documentation to show their legal status to authorities during a raid infringes upon the rights of many Mexican-Americans who are US citizens or lawful permanent residents because some of them are unable to readily provide the documentation at that time. In the latest immigration raid in Houston, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was forced to release 16 detainees because "one was a U.S. citizen and another 15 were here in status and are legally authorized to work."

For the time being, the tenor of the current immigration debate has thus far not changed sufficiently. Too many non-Latinos believe that this country is in the mist of an invasion that will lead to economic plight and crime-ridden streets. Political leaders and the media need to examine the facts and speak out.

Be it fear of the Japanese in the past or the current fear of the job stealing Mexican, as a nation, we must be most careful in times of severe national stress. The true test of human progress is whether we have the wisdom to see our faults and the strength to acknowledge them. Until we admit this, perhaps legitimate discussions concerning safety and economic growth will lead to an honest approach to immigration reform.

Edmundo Rocha: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:34 AM, Jun 30, 2008 in Immigration
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