From Repatriation to Deportation Nation: A Century of Mexico-US Migration

May 17, 2016
By: Mark Overmyer-Velázquez

The following entry emerges from my preparations to write the foreword to the English translation of Fernando Saúl Alanís Enciso’s Que se queden allá. El gobierno de México y la repatriación de mexicanos de Estados Unidos 1934–1940 (English: Let them stay there: The Mexican Government and the Repatriation of Mexicans from the United States, 1934-1940) (México: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, El Colegio de San Luis, 2007; Translation with University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).

The history examined by Fernando Alanís Enciso in Que se queden allá is very much alive today. In 2016, as many Mexican and other immigrants in the United States live vulnerably and in fear of deportation, we would do well to remember the lessons from the 1930s, a period when the U.S. government forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Mexicans –many U.S. citizens– back across the border in what became the largest “repatriation” movement in U.S. history. Although largely rooted in policies that were enacted long before his election, the record of approving the deportation of more people than any other president has earned President Obama the unsavory moniker “Deporter-in-Chief” by the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization.

The numbers of “formal removals” have been climbing rapidly since 1996, the year President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Whereas before 1996 immigration courts processed the majority of deportation cases, IIRIRA provided Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol agents with more authority to conduct nonjudicial deportations.  Total deportations increased from 51,000 in 1995 to over 419,000 in 2012, with the majority being nonjudicial. In addition, since 9/11 Congress increased funding to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE by 300 percent, further institutionalizing the militarization of the border and migrant surveillance.

Yet, the passing of the 1996 law was only one of the more recent moments in a longer, enduring history of strategic deportation practices by the U.S. government and corresponding actions by their Mexican counterparts. In the U.S., this history, for example, has shaped and contributed to the current toxic political environment surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The virulent xenophobia spewed by the unapologetically nativist Donald Trump and some of his Republican colleagues, emerges from a fundamental and entrenched racist, anti-immigrant narrative that always has existed alongside the dominant “land of liberty” national story. Legal historian Daniel Kanstroom argues against the notion of the development of the United States as a “melting pot, a mosaic, or as a more engaging metaphor puts it, a stir-fry. Rather, it is a history of the assertion, development, and refinement of centralized, well-focused, and often quite harsh government power subject to minimal judicial oversight.” (Deportation Nation, x).

Mexico has not been immune to these one-sided, heroic narratives of inclusion and welcoming. While President Cárdenas (1934-1940) paid ample lip service to championing his compatriots in the United States and aiding their return and reintegration into Mexico’s society and economy, much of that rhetoric was meant to offset his attention to assisting Spanish refugees escaping Franco’s repressive regime in the late 1930s. Cárdenas’s critics accused him of playing politics and ignoring his own countrymen in favor of supporting Spaniards seeking exile.

In Que se queden allá, Alanís also argues that, despite its ambivalence, “let them stay there” was and, for the most part has been, the Mexican government response to the emigration of thousands of its citizens to the United States. Officials determined that the economic benefit of continued remittances outweighed the humiliation of so many compatriots in the diaspora. As Alanís notes, the government’s “expression of dread” and anxiety over the possibility of a massive return of migrants persisted after the 1930s, returning, for example, following the enactment of anti-immigrant laws after the 9/11 attacks. In general, through the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican federal government policies toward out-migration focused on (ultimately failed) programs to control emigration. The conclusion of the Bracero program (1942-64) and the signing of the 1965 U.S. Immigration Act contributed to the steady flow of inexpensive Mexican workers to the U.S. In the early 1970s, the Mexican government –building on longstanding efforts– increasingly shifted to managing and supporting emigrants already north of the border.

The interdependent relationship between Mexico and the U.S. in the early twenty-first century was critically reexamined in 2008 by sociologist and UN Special Rapporteur Jorge Bustamante. Bustamante authored a report on the status of human rights of migrants living in the United States that unleashed a scathing critique of the failure of U.S. government policies to adhere to their professed commitment to international laws, human rights norms, and protocols. In particular, he emphasized violations in immigrant deportation and detention actions, of migrant worker rights and the rights of women and children, and criticized the recurrence of racial profiling and the absence of habeas corpus and proper judicial review. Highlighting the experience of Mexican migrants, Bustamante’s summary of recommendations for the government noted that “the United States lacks a clear, consistent, long-term strategy to improve respect for the human rights of migrants.” (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Geneva, 2008). Unfortunately, since Bustamante’s report deportations not only have increased, but new legislation enhancing surveillance and further criminalizing undocumented migrants has supported the growth of new for-profit, private prisons designed to hold only noncitizens convicted of federal crimes.

Alanís’s Que se queden allá reminds us of the historical connections between these two countries, their peoples, and their enduring efforts to legislate membership in each nation state. We would indeed do well to remember that history as we consider the human rights of Mexican and other migrants in the years ahead.

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez is Associate Professor of History and the founding Director of El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean & Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is currently completing a Spanish language volume to be published in Mexico on the history of Mexican migration to the United States.

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