Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It's Happened Before : Code Switch During the Great Depression, up to 2 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were expelled from the U.S. Research suggests that more than half were U.S.-born citizens.

Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It's Happened Before

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the United States, presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for illegal immigrants and their American-born children to be deported. Critics say there's about zero likelihood this would ever happen. But it has happened before. Mexicans, many of them naturalized U.S. citizens, were deported during the Great Depression. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team has a look back.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Now, I'm standing here in downtown Los Angeles next to the oldest Catholic church in LA. And there's a plaque here, a memorial commemorating the forced removal Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Now, this monument has a lot of text it. But one of the lines that stands out is this one. It says, in total, an estimated 2 million people of Mexican ancestry were forcibly relocated to Mexico. Approximately 1.2 million of these people were United States citizens.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: There was a perception in the United States that Mexicans are Mexicans.

FLORIDO: Francisco Balderrama co-wrote "Decade Of Betrayal," which documents these deportations that took place from 1929 to 1944.

BALDERRAMA: Whether they were American citizens or whether they were Mexican nationals, in the American mind - that is, in the mind of the government officials, in the mind of industry leaders - they're all Mexicans. So ship them home.

FLORIDO: During the Depression, when up to a quarter of Americans were unemployed, people feared that Mexican immigrants were taking scarce jobs. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were rounded up and deported, often without formal deportation hearings. One of these roundups is depicted in the classic Gregory Nava film, "Mi Familia."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MI FAMILIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I live here. No, I belong here.

FLORIDO: But it wasn't only federal agents removing people by force. Coercion was also an important tool for expelling Mexican-Americans. County social workers from Michigan to California played a big role in this. They often told Mexican-Americans that they'd be better off in Mexico and arranged their travel on trains. LA County was ground zero for this practice. And Balderrama says that during the Depression...

BALDERRAMA: One-third of the Mexican population of Los Angeles is expelled.

FLORIDO: Many those were U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants, people like Emilia Castaneda. She was born in LA, where her father, an immigrant, had settled and worked. In 1935, when Castaneda was 9, she says LA County bought tickets to put her family on a southbound train to Mexico. In a 1971 interview, she remembered what it was like when they arrived and moved in with relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMILIA CASTANEDA: We used to have to you, you know, sleep outdoors, out in the - if it rained, boy... It rains in Mexico. And a lot of times, we were sleeping and all of a sudden here comes a rainstorm. We used to be soaked to the bone.

FLORIDO: She also remembered feeling like she didn't belong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTANEDA: The oldest of the boys, he used to call me repatriada.

FLORIDO: That's the Spanish word for a repatriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTANEDA: And I don't think I felt that I was a repatriada because, you know, I was an American citizen.

FLORIDO: Castaneda eventually returns to the U.S. But she said she would never forget being labeled a Mexican repatriate. This term, repatriate, is really important in understanding how this mass expulsion of U.S. citizens worked. Then, like today, only the federal government had the authority to deport people. But most of this work was done by county officials, which Professor Balderrama says they justified this way.

BALDERRAMA: We do not call it deportation. We call it repatriation.

FLORIDO: Balderrama says the desperation of the Great Depression enabled the mass disregard for the rights of Mexican Americans. And he believes the economic insecurity of this era is what's behind the calls to do it again. Adrian Florido, NPR News.

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