Mass Deportations of Mexicans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Massive unemployment in the United States during the Great Depression prompted the deportation of immigrant workers.

Summary of Event

In the early decades of the twentieth century, immigration of Mexican nationals into the United States was a growing phenomenon. It was not viewed as a problem, however, because cheap labor was welcomed, particularly on farms and ranches. U.S. immigration laws generally were enforced selectively with regard to Mexicans. During World War I (1914-1918), at the request of U.S. businesses, the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1917 Immigration Act (1917) that required immigrants to pay an eight-dollar “head tax” and prove literacy were waived for Mexican laborers. This special departmental order legitimated U.S. dependence on cheap Mexican labor and institutionalized Mexico’s special status. [kw]Mass Deportations of Mexicans (Early 1930’s) [kw]Deportations of Mexicans, Mass (Early 1930’s) [kw]Mexicans, Mass Deportations of (Early 1930’s) Immigration;Mexico to U.S. Great Depression Unemployment;Great Depression Deportation;U.S. to Mexico [g]United States;Early 1930’s: Mass Deportations of Mexicans[07380] [c]Business and labor;Early 1930’s: Mass Deportations of Mexicans[07380] [c]Economics;Early 1930’s: Mass Deportations of Mexicans[07380] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Early 1930’s: Mass Deportations of Mexicans[07380] Doak, William N. Visel, Charles P.

At the end of World War I, the order was not rescinded; in fact, U.S. companies intensified their recruitment of Mexican farmworkers. Industrial companies in the Northeast and Midwest, such as steel mills and automobile manufacturers, also began recruiting Mexicans from the Southwest, resulting in an expanding migration in terms of both numbers of immigrants and their geographic spread. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 Emergency Immigration Act (1921) and the National Origins Act National Origins Act (1924) (Immigration Act of 1924) Immigration Act (1924) had each limited immigration from Europe, but no restrictions were imposed on the number of immigrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere. A large and growing population of Mexican immigrants was thus established in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century.

In the 1920’s, the U.S. government’s attitude toward Mexican immigrants gradually changed from lax enforcement to severe restrictions. As social and economic conditions deteriorated on a global scale, the great pool of cheap Mexican labor was increasingly resented by unemployed U.S. citizens. Despite pressure from businesses, laws restricting entry—that is, the head tax and literacy test—began to be strictly enforced against Mexicans by immigration authorities. Two new laws also were passed that had a further chilling effect on Mexican immigration to the United States: the Deportation Act of March 4, 1929, which made entering the United States illegally a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison or a fine of as much as one thousand dollars, followed by a May 4, 1929, law making it a felony for a deported alien to reenter the United States illegally. These laws, followed within months by the stock market crash that marked the onset of the Great Depression, set the stage for a period of repressive measures against Mexican nationals in the United States.

As the Depression caused more unemployment, the caseloads of social welfare agencies increased. By 1931, as the pool of unemployed immigrants requiring assistance grew, local agencies intensified their efforts to force repatriation; on the federal level, calls to deport immigrants increased also. President Herbert Hoover endorsed the aggressive efforts to expel aliens, restrict legal immigration, and curtail illegal entry. William N. Doak, who took office as Hoover’s secretary of labor in December, 1930, proposed that any alien holding a job be deported. The Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Immigration, U.S. at that time a part of the Department of Labor, began an aggressive campaign of rooting out illegal aliens, with the objective of reducing unemployment and thus hastening the end of the Great Depression. Many of the aliens deported under this program, however, were already unemployed.


Although Mexicans were not specifically targeted by the immigration authorities, they were the group most affected numerically. The responses of the Mexican government to the problem varied. At times, land reform programs were established for repatriating Mexican citizens; at other times, Mexico feared the addition of more unemployed citizens to its labor surplus. Opportunities for Mexican Americans to obtain land in Mexico usually required money to be invested, although occasionally programs offered land to destitute repatriates.

In the southwestern U.S. states, particularly, immigration officials aggressively sought deportable Mexicans, and social service agencies encouraged Mexicans to volunteer for repatriation. The most ambitious of these programs was undertaken in Los Angeles County, California, but cities such as Chicago and Detroit, where Mexicans had been recruited by industry in the early 1920’s, also were actively attempting to get even legal Mexican residents to leave in the 1930’s.

The Los Angeles Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief, Los Angeles Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief headed by Charles P. Visel, had been charged with assisting the unemployed residents of the city, especially through creation of jobs, for which longtime local residents would be given preference. Inspired by Labor Secretary Doak’s earlier pronouncements that some four hundred thousand deportable aliens were believed to be in the country, Visel set out to identify and deport as many illegal aliens from the city of Los Angeles as possible. Visel contacted Doak and requested that a sufficient number of immigration agents be deployed in Los Angeles to create a hostile environment, from which he hoped aliens would flee voluntarily. Visel planned to open his campaign with press releases and a few well-publicized arrests.

Although the plan was not aimed specifically at Mexicans, some statements made by Visel did mention Mexicans as a group to be targeted. The Spanish-language newspapers in Southern California stirred up the Mexican community, both in Los Angeles and in Mexico, by publishing inaccurate stories that virtually all Mexicans were being targeted for deportation. In the first three weeks of February, 1931, immigration agents had investigated several thousand people, of whom only about two hundred were determined to be subject to deportation. Figures released by Visel’s committee in March, 1931, indicated that 70 percent of the persons deported up to that time in the Los Angeles campaign were Mexicans. According to the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, which estimated that ten thousand of the more than two hundred thousand Mexicans thought to be living in Los Angeles prior to 1931 had left, many of the repatriates owned businesses and homes in Southern California. It should be noted, however, that the Chamber of Commerce would be more likely to have contact with the more prosperous members of the population than with the unemployed or laborers.

Concurrent with the federal and local campaigns to deport illegal aliens, Los Angeles County officials began attempting to repatriate destitute Mexicans. Many Mexican nationals had entered the United States at a time when penalties for illegal entry were nonexistent or seldom enforced against Mexicans, so their legal status was uncertain. Because it was unlikely that unemployed Mexicans would find employment in the United States, welfare officials were beginning to put pressure on alien relief recipients to return to Mexico, at times leading them to believe that if they did not leave voluntarily, they would be cut off from aid immediately.

Frank Shaw, Shaw, Frank a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, was the first area official to propose paying the cost of transporting families back to Mexico by train. Three hundred fifty Mexicans signed up for the first trip, in March, 1931. Many more trips were made, but statistics concerning repatriation under the county program are clouded by the fact that the same trains that carried county-aided Mexicans also carried deportees and Mexicans who had made their own arrangements to leave, and accurate records were not kept. Overall, the various efforts to reduce the number of immigrants in Southern California in the early 1930’s caused a noticeable, but temporary, reduction of the Mexican population in the area.

Mexican immigration to the United States continued to be driven in subsequent decades by economic factors and employment trends. For instance, during World War II, when Texas and other southwestern states saw a reduction in the male workforce owing to enlistment in the armed forces, the bracero program was initiated to encourage Mexican immigration. When the soldiers came home after the war, the situation reversed. Throughout the twentieth century, as job realities shifted and changed, the United States relied on Mexican and other immigrant populations, whether legal or illegal in status, as a labor pool. Immigration;Mexico to U.S. Great Depression Unemployment;Great Depression Deportation;U.S. to Mexico

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cardoso, Lawrence A. “The Great Depression: Emigration Halts and Repatriation Begins.” In Mexican Emigration to the United States, 1897-1931. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980. Brief discussion of federal deportation efforts and local repatriation efforts in the early 1930’s. Includes the lyrics of corridos (ballads) written by returning Mexicans lamenting their plight.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Chapters 11 and 12 discuss immigration from Mexico before, during, and after the Depression. Includes tables, maps, and charts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul R., Loy Bilderback, and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico, and the United States. New York: Ballantine, 1978. Introductory chapters cover migration in general and European and Asian immigration into the United States. Remaining chapters cover Mexican immigration into the United States until the 1970’s. Includes notes, list of recommended readings, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974. Well-researched, comprehensive look at the deportation and repatriation of Mexicans, particularly from Los Angeles County, in the 1930’s. Includes notes, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Ribera. Mexican Americans and American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Comprehensive history of the Mexican presence in the United States includes discussion of deportation and repatriation in the 1930’s. Features glossary, suggestions for further reading, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Samora, Julian.“Los Mojados”: The Wetback Story. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971. Discusses illegal immigration from Mexico in the twentieth century, including a chapter by an individual who attempted to enter the country illegally. Features bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Examines the history of immigration policy in the United States since the nation’s founding, focusing on the factors that have influenced attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Includes tables, figures, and index.

Immigration Act of 1917

Emergency Quota Act

Immigration Act of 1924

U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol

Categories: History