Skip to comments.Deportation victims seek redress for Depression-era wrongs
Posted on 09/11/2004 7:08:35 AM PDT by Dubya
LOS ANGELES - Ignacio Pina was 6 when immigration officers came to his Montana home, held his family behind bars for a week, then herded them onto a train bound for Mexico - a country he and his five siblings had never seen.
"They just kicked us out with what we were wearing," the U.S.-born Pina recalls more than 70 years later.
It was 1931, the first year of a decade-long effort to remove Mexicans to free up jobs in a U.S. economy mired in the Great Depression. Estimates of the number of people caught in the raids range from 500,000 to 2 million, with researchers agreeing that they included tens of thousands of legal immigrants, as well as children like Pina who were born in the United States.
"Mexican Repatriation," authorized by President Hoover and carried out in cooperation with local authorities, targeted areas with large Hispanic populations, mostly in California, Texas and Michigan. It left festering emotional wounds that for many have still not healed.
Pina, an 80-year-old retired railroad worker who lives in Bakersfield, still gets angry when he recalls how his family was uprooted and forced to struggle to survive in a foreign country.
"It's a feeling I will have until I die," he said. "This government did a very wrong thing."
He and others have long sought an apology and official acknowledgment of their plight in U.S. history books. Now, there is a chance they may get their wish.
The California Legislature has passed two bills addressing the issue: One would create a privately funded commission to investigate Mexican Repatriation; the second would open a two-year window for victims to file damage claims since the statute of limitations has long since closed.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has until the end of the month to sign the bills, has not disclosed his position but supporters are optimistic, given his recent appeal to fellow immigrants to join him in the Republican Party.
"One would hope that the governor's immigrant background would make him more sympathetic," said Francisco Estrada, the director of public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Last year, former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed legislation that would have reopened the statute of limitations for damage claims, saying it would be more efficient for the state to pay claims directly rather than through litigation. Other critics say cash-strapped governments and businesses can't afford to compensate people for a long-ago injustice.
"This may sound insensitive, but we do have other pressing problems that we have to attend to at this time," said state Sen. Bill Morrow, a Republican who voted against both repatriation bills in the Legislature.
Supporters of the measures compare the survivors of the repatriation to the Japanese-Americans held at internment camps during World War II who received an apology and $20,000 in reparations from the U.S. government in 1988. U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, plans to introduce a bill in Congress this year that would investigate the Depression-era deportations and consider whether reparations would be appropriate.
One challenge is that the number of survivors is unknown. Many who were deported never returned to the United States. Those who did are scattered. State Sen. Joseph Dunn, a Democrat who authored the two state repatriation bills and has researched the topic for two years, estimates that perhaps 50,000 are still alive, although his office has compiled a list of barely two dozen.
Another question is how much to pay people forced to give up homes and businesses and make a new start in an impoverished country. "There is no dollar amount that could compensate them for what they went through," said Francisco Balderrama, a professor and co-author of "Decade of Betrayal," a book about the repatriation program.
Still, Dunn argues that the United States has an obligation to address the issue, in part to prevent the future mass deportation of a single ethnic group. "This is a forgotten injustice that needs to be corrected," he said.
Survivors, meanwhile, say they are eager to see official acknowledgment of their losses. But it needs to happen fast.
One of Pina's brothers has died and he says three of his sisters, who live in Arizona, have health problems. Ruben Jimenez of Whittier, an 80-year-old retired probation officer whose family was forced to leave in 1932, is the only one of nine siblings still living. Others tell of similar losses and favor dropping claims for reparations to save time.
"If I were to get compensation, it wouldn't help me much because by the time I get it, I'll be dead," said Jose Lopez, 77, a retired auto worker in Detroit. "Really, all I want to do is tell the public what happened because a lot of people don't know."
It is a common refrain among the survivors, who say the public is largely unaware of their struggles. Pina, who was born in Carbon City, Utah, says he was unable to speak Spanish adequately when he arrived in Mexico and he and his siblings were very different culturally from native-born Mexicans. "They looked at us like freaks," he recalls. "We didn't belong there."
His father came to the United States around 1907 and, after working for years as a miner in Utah, eventually found work at a sugar beet farm near Hamilton, Mont., where immigration agents rounded up the family. When they returned to Mexico, his father died and he went to work as a shoeshine boy to help support his siblings, never attending school beyond sixth grade.
In 1945, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City issued him an affidavit confirming his birth in the United States and he returned to the country the following year, eventually settling in California's Central Valley, working for the railroad and raising four children with his wife. The memory of his family's upheaval, he says, remains fresh.
"I'm 80 years old and I probably don't have much longer in this world," he said. "But how can I forget that?"
ON THE NET
I fail to see how $20,000 more or less can remove the bitterness from this woman. She needs to move on. 76 years is too long to be carrying around a wound. Life is not fair and folks shouldn't think its the government's job to make life fair.
I guess that would be 74 years not 76 years.
Some people are always looking for a free ride.
Give their descendants a tax Holiday for the next couple of generations.
There...it's fixed now.
Let's see. Why not hand the entire US over to Mexico? Would that be enough?
Yeah, California, authorize paying reparations to these people, aggravate your existing massive debt and make crime pay.
It's too bad about the American-born kids who were "repatriated" with their illegal Mexican parents, but 2 wrongs still don't make a right. The parent(s) committed the original wrong by coming here illegally. I can't condemn Hoover for trying to free up jobs for Americans by sending these folks back and giving them reparations is simply a means of making crime pay.