by Spencer Howard
There is a widespread but unfounded myth that President Hoover ordered the deportation or “repatriation” of large numbers of Hispanics, primarily Mexicans, during his administration (1929-1933). “Deportation” is the legal process for formally expelling a non-citizen from the United States; “repatriation” is a term that refers to various methods for persuading or forcing individuals to leave the country outside of the legal process.
In the late 1920s, about 60,000 people would enter the U.S. annually from “non-quota” countries, primarily Mexico, and many of them stayed for years. (The 1924 Immigration Act had established strict quotas for immigration from Europe, Asia and Africa, but did not limit immigration from North or South America.) As long as migrants had a visa and a job, they could stay as long as they wished. Any migrant without a valid visa could be deported at any time, and any migrant, temporary or permanent, could be deported if they became a public charge. Local law enforcement agencies were the primary means for apprehending illegal immigrants, and the burden of proof was on the migrant to show a valid visa and employment. The Labor Department’s Bureau of Immigration was responsible for issuing official deportation warrants, and in most cases would pay for the deportees’ transportation out of the country.
There was an important loophole — if migrants left the country voluntarily, there were no repercussions and they could return in the future, but if they were officially deported and subsequently returned to the U.S., they would be denied a visa and could be charged with a felony for attempting illegal entry. As a result, law enforcement at all levels encouraged or even forced noncitizens (and sometimes even citizens of foreign heritage) to “repatriate” to their country of origin rather than take a chance with a deportation hearing.
As unemployment climbed during the Great Depression, most American citizens believed that jobs and charity should be reserved for Americans, and that non-citizens should return to their home countries. State and local law enforcement, with the encouragement of the Bureau of Immigration, stepped up efforts to apprehend petty criminals and public charges for deportation, which resulted in only modest (though often well-publicized) increases in official deportations. Official deportations to all countries were 16,631 in 1930, 18,142 in 1931 and 19,426 in 1932.
President Hoover’s only official action was to eliminate inward migration by reducing the number of visas to almost zero, on the grounds that most applicants would likely find no work and become public charges. As the Depression worsened, private businesses and industry often took matters into their own hands. In Detroit, for example, the automakers fired many of their Hispanic workers, including legal migrants and even American citizens of Hispanic descent. Without jobs, many chose to leave the country rather than risk a deportation hearing. In other parts of the country, state and local officials began considering large-scale “voluntary repatriation” projects to reduce the burden on local welfare and charity.
The specifics varied but the results were the same: illegal immigrants and even legal migrants left the country “voluntarily” in large numbers. In some cases they left after being threatened or detained by local law enforcement or Bureau of Immigration officials. Others were alarmed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric or hostile attitude of their neighbors. Sometimes, local or state governments, or even private charities, would pay the transportation costs for the repatriates to leave the country. The largest such repatriation project took place in Los Angeles, organized by the City of Los Angeles with cooperation from the Department of Labor and Los Angeles County officials. In 1930 and 1931, tens of thousands of Mexicans were rounded up and put on trains, often with their American-born children, and summarily shipped across the border. Los Angeles County estimated that the cost to send one trainload of 6,000 Mexicans back to Mexico was about $77,000, but if they had stayed, unemployment relief would have cost the County about $425,000 per year.
Some of the repatriates, out of work or out of luck, actually welcomed the opportunity to return to their home country. Others were unaware of their rights, or lacked the means to defend themselves at a deportation hearing. The Mexican government was eager to bring workers back to Mexico, paid for their transportation from the border to the interior, and supported charitable organizations that helped repatriates find jobs and homes in Mexico.
Hoover’s Secretary of Labor, William Doak, was much more enthusiastic than the President about repatriation and used every means at his disposal to encourage repatriation projects like the one in Los Angeles. Some historians have suggested that the Immigration Bureau’s activities were unscrupulous, unfair or even illegal, but at the time they were very popular with most Americans, and no serious legal challenges were raised. Hoover could, perhaps, have told Doak to back off, but it would have raised a political firestorm – Hoover’s detractors would have accused him of taking jobs and unemployment relief away from American citizens.
In total, perhaps ten times as many people may have left the country “voluntarily” during the Hoover administration than were officially deported, but because the departures were “voluntary,” an accurate estimate is impossible to determine. President Hoover believed that the Federal government’s role should be limited to prosecuting official deportations and enforcing the laws limiting legal immigration. In his address accepting the Republican Presidential renomination in 1932, he stated, “I favor rigidly restricted immigration. I have by executive direction in order to relieve us of added unemployment, already reduced the inward movement to less than the outward movement. I shall adhere to that policy.”