How America Failed Its Immigrants

The following is an excerpt from Alfredo Gutierrez's new book, "To Sin Against Hope, How America Failed its Immigrants: A Personal Story." (Verso Books, 2013)

My father’s deportation story was not particularly unusual in Arizona’s mining towns at that time. It was just part of the landscape, one of the sacrifices Mexicans risked in order to work in the mines, join the union, get steady pay and a company doctor, raise the kids, maybe send them to college and get them out from underground. My father was deported in 1932. It was at the height of anti-immigrant hysteria that had been growing for two decades. Madison Grant’s highly influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, had been published in 1916. Grant described the United States as the highest accomplishment of the Nordic race of northern and western Europe, a place where Democracy flourished because it had been founded by this Nordic white race. The greatest danger America faced was the immigration of non-Nordic people. They would pollute the purity of America and debase the values, morals, and intelligence of the American people. Mexicans fit Grant’s definition of a “population of race bastards” as an example of a people whose inferior Indian blood would dominate whatever good white blood there may have been in a mestizo.

The mestizo, in his view, was a moral cripple incapable of democratic government.

Grant was perhaps the best known and most often cited scientific racist of the era, a leader of the eugenics movement in America. A powerful voice advocating for the passage of the restrictive anti-immigration Quota Law of 1924, he argued successfully in a majority of the states for coercive sterilization laws and worked with Marcus Garvey to facilitate the return of former slaves to Africa. Grant’s public persona was not defined by simple racism. He was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, is often credited as a founder of the American conservation movement, helped create Denali and Glacier National Parks, and counted among his friends President William Taft, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Even Adolf Hitler recognized his genius, calling The Passing of the Great Race “my bible.”

But Grant’s was not the only voice calling for extreme measures against dark-skinned immigrants. C. M. Goethe, later the august founder of Sacramento State College, estimated that “the average American Family had three children while the Mexican family had nine or ten offspring. At this rate the former couple had 27 great-grandchildren while the latter had 729. Within a few generations Mexicans would control the United States through sheer weight of numbers.” The danger of being inundated by Mexican bad blood was imminent and profoundly alarming. Roy Garis, an expert in eugenics and a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, wrote of Mexicans:

Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions— eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery. In every huddle of Mexican shacks one meets the same idleness, hordes of hungry dogs, and filthy children with faces plastered with flies, disease, lice, human filth, stench, promiscuous fornication, bastardy... These people sleep by day and prowl by night like coyotes, stealing anything they can get their hands on, no matter how useless to them it may be... Yet there are Americans clamoring for more of this human swine to be brought over from Mexico.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later legislation had closed the door to Asians, and the Literacy Act of 1917 had been passed to try to exclude illiterate peasants, but waves of Jews, Poles, Italians, Irish, and Greeks continued landing on America’s shores. In 1921 and again in 1924 Congress passed Quota Laws that established a maximum number of immigrants by national origin. The quotas were based upon the demographic makeup of the United States in 1890—prior to the great waves from southern Europe. The intent was obvious: America had been founded as a white Nordic country, and Congress intended to keep it that way.

As it happens, Western Hemisphere immigration was excluded from the quotas established in 1921 and 1924. Between 1921 and 1930 there were numerous attempts to impose quotas on Mexican immigration. Representative John Box of Texas, a Methodist minister and a founder of Southern Methodist University, argued on the floor of the House in 1928 that “every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border.” But in this and other instances, the quotas were blocked in the Senate by Southerners and Westerners who were protecting the agricultural lobby and its flow of cheap labor. Immigration policy in the 1920s officially welcomed only the Nordic race, but the Mexican “back door” was left open.

Then came the Depression. The repatriation campaigns of the Great Depression were initiated by the Hoover Administration as an attempt to do something, no matter how ineffective, in response to the growing wave of unemployment sweeping the country. Like Obama’s deportations in his first term, they began in response to accusations of inaction against hordes of criminal Mexicans crossing the border and stealing jobs. In both cases, it was perhaps the president’s choice of chief enforcer of immigration laws that signaled the willingness to use the blunt force of government. William Doak was appointed Secretary of Labor by Hoover in 1930. Doak was a leading figure in the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen union and a prominent figure in the campaign against immigrants. (Janet Napolitano, appointed Secretary of Homeland Security by Obama in 2009, had deployed the National Guard on the Mexican border as governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009. She had signed into law the most severe employer sanctions bill in the nation and had approved measures making migrants smuggled in as much felons as traffickers.)

Shortly after taking office, Doak centered his attention on deporting aliens who were or had been in the workforce. In his annual departmental report of 1931, he wrote that the purpose of the Department of Labor, which then enforced immigration laws, was

to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners of the United States . . . it is a mere corollary of this duty and purpose to spare no reasonable effort to remove the menace of unfair competition which actually exists in the vast number of aliens who have in one way or another, principally by surreptitious entries, violated our immigration laws . . . the force and effect of these provisions would be largely defeated if they were not accompanied by provisions for the deportation of those found in the country as having entered in violation of these restrictions.

In 1930 the Border Patrol numbered 781 agents. President Hoover offered Doak unqualified support for his campaign, and pledged an additional “245 more agents to assist in the deportation of 500,000 foreigners.” Even 1,000 agents were insufficient for the magnitude of the task. Doak, undeterred, launched initiatives to expand the reach of the Border Patrol, measures that would continue to be refined by successive administrations, including Obama’s.

The belief that deteriorating employment was a consequence of immigration reached hysterical levels. Congressman Martin Dies of Texas introduced a thick raft of bills aimed at making the life of immigrants miserable. Dies’ racist and anti-Semitic views were well known. He proposed forcibly deporting all of the 6 million aliens he claimed resided in the United States. There were raids, roundups, and mass deportations in almost every state in the Union. Local committees, mayors, sheriffs, and governors escalated the rhetoric of hate. In Los Angeles, the chairman of a local committee, Charles Visel, proposed a campaign of extensive newspaper publicity, threatening detention and deportation to “scare-head” Mexicans to self-deport without the necessity of formal proceedings. The city saw nationally publicized raids in which streets were closed off, cars stopped and searched, and those who looked “Mexican” apprehended. Colorado’s governor, Edwin C. Johnson, threatened “to call the National Guard to round up foreigners and expel them from the state.” Latinos lived with the ever-present fear of detention and deportation. To seek help from a welfare office or a county hospital was to run great risks.

The description of raids conducted by local law enforcement fully authorized by high officials reads disturbingly like the front-page stories of today, as with the raids of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the bombastic Arizona poster boy of the nativist movement). If anything, there was a bit more frankness and clarity in the rhetoric of the 1930s. There was no pretense that the expulsions were aimed solely at “illegals,” leaving little doubt that the corrupting influence of Mexican morals, values, and inferior culture threatened America’s very existence. Even Arpaio tiptoes more delicately through the racial and ethnic maze than did his more honest predecessors. While governor of Arizona, President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary was careful enough to call on the National Guard only to keep the foreigners out, and not to round them up.

This excerpt was published with permission from Verso Books. 

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