Remembering California's 'Repatriation Program'

A bill called the "Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program" became official on Jan. 1. Melissa Block talks with the bill's author, state Sen. Joe Dunn, a Democrat from Santa Ana, Calif., about the forced migration to Mexico in the 1930s of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

California has officially apologized for a long-forgotten chapter in this country's history. With the new year, the state apologized for the illegal deportation and coerced emigration of hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. The majority were United States citizens. They were rounded up and put onto trains for Mexico, where many of them had never lived. California's apology is the work of state Senator Joe Dunn, who joins us from his office in Garden Grove.

Happy new year, Senator Dunn.

State Senator JOE DUNN (Democrat, California): Well, thank you very much, Melissa, and happy new year to you as well.

BLOCK: Thank you. Now you're the author of the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican repatriation program. And it seems to me that repatriation is something of a misnomer here.

State Sen. DUNN: That's a great understatement, Melissa. Repatriation is, in fact, a misnomer. That was the label put on this program by the Hoover administration starting back in 1930 and 1931. In essence, their theory was, `We're going to repatriate those born here in the United States but of Mexican descent back to their, quote, "mother,"' end quote, `country.' That was their words, not mine. And it was a misnomer because the vast majority of those that were illegally deported under this program were born and raised right here in the United States. And the numbers actually, Melissa, if I may for just a moment, are staggering. Almost two million individuals were illegally deported to Mexico, and it's estimated that almost 60 percent or more of those two million were actually United States citizens born right here in the United States.

BLOCK: And this wasn't just in California. It was in any number of other states: Texas, New Mexico, Michigan I've read, New York, Illinois. Explain how this all came about. Let's put this in some historical context. It's 1931. It's the height of the Depression. What's going on?

State Sen. DUNN: The phrase that the Hoover administration used was `American jobs for real Americans.' Well, if you were born and raised right here in the United States but just happened to be of Mexican descent, in the Hoover administration's eyes, you were not a, quote, "real American," end quote. But that was the designed purposed of the program, to create jobs due to the rising number of unemployment at that time.

BLOCK: Well, how was this policy of deportation carried out? How did they do it?

State Sen. DUNN: Unfortunately, most of the individuals that were forcibly deported literally were done under armed guard and lock and key. There was a raid in a park in Los Angeles in February of 1931 in which they literally rounded up all the folk in that park who appeared to be of Mexican descent, put them on flatbed trucks under armed guard to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, on a train that was under lock and key and literally forced them on and--onto the train, and the train took them to the interior of Mexico. Most of the deportations were done by force.

BLOCK: And at least in some of these cases, they would have had no connection with the places where they were being sent.

State Sen. DUNN: That is the tragedy. Their familiarity was absolutely zero. I'm an Irish-American, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, but deporting me to Ireland is meaningless because I don't know the land. Obviously I speak the language, but most of the deportees in 1930s that were shipped to Mexico did not speak the language. And they were not only thrown out of their country of birth, the United States, they were foreigners in the new land that they were shipped to, that being Mexico.

BLOCK: You know, of course, it's one thing for a state to apologize, as California has now done. It's another thing altogether to put some money behind that apology and to offer to pay reparations to descendents of those who were deported.

State Sen. DUNN: Yes.

BLOCK: Do you think there's any support for a measure like that to actually compensate...

State Sen. DUNN: Well, thus far legislatively in Sacramento, for the state of California, yes. But in the executive branch, both former Governor Gray Davis and current Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have vetoed a bill not to actually pay reparations, Melissa, but, rather, to create a commission to complete our investigation about what should be done to correct the injustice. Is it just an apology? Is it educational materials, or is it reparation fund itself? But we have gotten nowhere with that legislation with either the past or the current governor.

BLOCK: Joe Dunn is a state senator from Santa Ana, California, and author of the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican repatriation program, which became official yesterday.

Senator Dunn, thanks very much.

State Sen. DUNN: Melissa, thank you very much.

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