Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
“When we moved to California, we would work after school. Sometimes we wouldn’t go. ‘Following the crops,’ we missed much school. Trying to get enough money to stay alive the following winter, the whole family picking apricots, walnuts, prunes.” This comment was from farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez on remembering his youth during the Great Depression. His family became migrant farm laborers in California after losing their home in Arizona (in Terkel, An Oral History of the Great Depression. p. 54).
With the rapid pace of industrialization following the Civil War (1861-1865), life in the United States offered a promise of economic opportunity and financial security found in few other places in the world. In the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century thousands had moved to the United States from foreign lands, which were previously little represented in U.S. society. By the 1920s the United States had become the home of increasing numbers of social groups distinguished by their race, nationality, language, or cultural traditions.
These groups, known as ethnic groups or ethnic minorities, added complexity to a society long dominated by Americans whose ancestry lied primarily in western and northern Europe. Ethnic minorities may differ from racial minorities since race is often more narrowly based on skin color. Ethnicity may be based purely on cultural traditions including language, but it often includes skin color as well. For example, people immigrating from Germany or Russia or Scandinavia may all have the physical features similar to Anglo Americans, but belong to their ethnic group based on cultural heritage. In the United States people are commonly considered members of ethnic groups regardless of their U.S. citizenship status.
Among those arriving in the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were many people from Mexico and Asia. Because they differed in skin color, culture, and language from mainstream U.S. society, Mexican citizens (Nationals) and Mexican Americans as well as Asians and Asian Americans were treated similarly despite differing legal status. They did not readily blend in and were given few opportunities to do so. Ethnic groups arriving from various regions of Europe including Italy, Ireland, and Germany were not as severely discriminated against. Black Americans and American Indians have histories of relations with the U.S. government that are significantly different than those of the Mexican and Asian immigrant populations and are each addressed in other entries in this volume.
Until the twentieth century, the increasing ethnic diversity posed few social and political problems in the United States. However with the abrupt downturn in the U.S. economy in 1929, ethnic groups, particularly those from Mexico and Asia, quickly became scapegoats for the growing social and economic problems the United States faced.
Highly restrictive immigration laws passed beginning in 1882 had largely stopped the flow of peoples from Asia into the United States, while those who were already in the United States faced severe discrimination and exclusion from mainstream society. This exclusion led to even more isolated ethnic communities of Asian Americans. As a result Chinese and Japanese populations in the United States had stopped growing by the late 1920s.
With Asian Americans largely isolated from U.S. society by the 1930s, Mexican Americans became a major target of government action during the Great Depression. They presented an easy target since most Mexican Americans were farm laborers, a type of job which was not protected by federal or state laws. As the Great Depression set in they saw farm wages fall dramatically, if they were able to keep a job at all. Farm workers making average daily wages of $2.55 in 1930 were only making $1.40 a day in 1933 and some laborers were only making 15¢ an hour. Many returned to Mexico to seek out employment there, while others were forcefully sent to Mexico during the 1930s. Mexican Americans became the target of one of the largest mass removal efforts ever promoted by the U.S. government, as well as state governments, particularly California’s. For many continuing to work as field laborers, conditions were often deplorable. Efforts to organize and seek better working conditions gained momentum, but the agricultural industry, including growers, aggressively fought such efforts. As the Great Depression continued Mexican Americans received little relief and fewer work opportunities.
The overall effect of the Depression was that Asian Americans became even more isolated from U.S. society and the movement of Mexican laborers northward to the United States during the previous several decades temporarily reversed. The California Mexican population declined for the first time in 80 years. During the period of years between 1929 and 1937 the Mexican American population in the United States decreased by over a third. Though the forced reduction in population had little effect on ending the Great Depression, it did greatly alter the ethnic makeup of the nation’s farm labor force, particularly in California. The return migration to Mexico also devastated the lives of many immigrants and citizens and greatly set back the Mexican American communities in the United States. All people of Mexican descent were subjected to constant fear of forced removal throughout the Great Depression.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the United States became more ethnically diverse. Foreigners who came to stay, called immigrants, arrived from distant overseas nations as well as from countries in North and South America. Immigrants arrived both legally, through established official entry locations, and illegally through more secretive means. Before becoming a U.S. citizen, both legal and illegal immigrants are known as aliens, who can become citizens through the naturalization process. This process involves satisfying several requirements including being a legal resident for five years, being literate in English, and having a good behavior record. The U.S. government can legally evict, or deport aliens, sending them back to their country of origin after federal proceedings. A specific cause must exist, however, for deporting those legally in the country. Prior to deporting an individual U.S. authorities must notify a foreign official from the country involved, known as a foreign consul, of U.S. intentions to send the person to their country. Aliens can also be sent or forced back to their country of national origin through other means in addition to deportation. This more general process is often referred to as repatriation. Repatriation is the return of individuals to their place of origin, or ancestry, which can include the formal process of deportation or less formal processes such as voluntary decisions to return.
The Great Depression dramatically changed ethnic relations in America. During earlier economic boom times members of ethnic groups had filled the demand for low-wage, unskilled workers. In addition to the many immigrants and their children who were U.S. citizens by birth or naturalization, six million aliens, legal and illegal, also resided in the United States at the onset of the Great Depression. The demand for ethnic minorities to fill labor positions suddenly ended as U.S. economic conditions deteriorated and they were no longer wanted by the economically-dominant white society.
In place of a demand for immigrants, a groundswell against ethnic groups erupted. Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and other ethnic groups were considered part of the national problem. Many believed the Depression was dragging on because “foreigners” were taking jobs away from white Americans. The “foreigners” were also accused of depleting government relief funds by receiving welfare payments. Many minorities were deprived of work opportunities, some faced government deportation programs involving mass roundups, and others faced violence and intimidation. Deportation was part of a massive repatriation effort that sent several hundred thousand people, some U.S. citizens, out of the country. Most aliens remained culturally isolated and had not intermingled with U.S. society. A large number did not speak English and did not understand the economic factors driving deportation. Many felt resistance was useless and passively complied with U.S. demands to leave. They often fully expected to eventually return. Few wanted to leave.
Immigration issues rose in prominence during the 1930s, garnering greater attention from public officials more than any time before. Existing immigration laws which favored some ethnic groups over others, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1924, were more tightly enforced and immigration officials were given broader powers to issue arrest warrants and detain aliens.
Mexican and Mexican American workers were under high demand by U.S. businesses during the economic boom years of the 1920s. Over one million new immigrants came from Mexico between 1900 and 1930 to take advantage of the growing U.S. economy. Most worked in the agricultural fields of California and the Southwest settling into Mexican American communities for the long term. Their goals were often to save up enough money to move back to Mexico and purchase farmland or establish a business. Growing numbers were also finding work in mines and then manufacturing by the 1920s. When the Great Depression arrived, however, and jobs became more scarce, discrimination against Mexican Americans greatly escalated.
Deportation to Mexico
A forceful expression of the anti-minority sentiment that grew in the 1930s was an increased effort to deport illegal aliens and this action was particularly aimed at Mexicans. As long as the business community needed workers the issue of illegal aliens had little urgency, but when jobs disappeared and competition for wages with non-minorities grew, the public sought to deport illegal aliens.
Deportation efforts started within the agricultural industry as it struggled through the 1920s. A U.S. federal deportation campaign against Mexican workers was launched in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in 1929. During that year alone 17,600 Mexicans were sent back to Mexico. The deportation program spread nationwide and Mexican aliens were deported daily through the early years of the Great Depression. For example, in August 1931 over 1,500 aliens were deported followed by 1,700 in September.
Federal agents brought militaristic strategies to the deportation program. Raids and roundups by immigration agents, called levas or razzias by the Mexican Americans, in California’s Mexican communities began in 1930. The agents wielded considerable legal power and rounded up federal agents, county sheriffs, and local police to participate. Anyone who looked Mexican, including U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry, and were legal or illegal immigrants were subject to being picked up and taken into custody during street sweeps. Mass arrests were made in public places without warrants or particular reason (show of probable cause). Besides street sweeps, agents would go door-to-door without warrants demanding proof of legal residency. Those unable to satisfactorily produce official papers to the agents were taken to jail.
To satisfy the white business community, on behalf of President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933), Secretary of Labor William N. Doak focused on labor strikes involving minorities. Farm strikes in California became a key target to seeking out illegal aliens. The roundup and arrest of aliens while they were on strike served as warning to others who would strike. The business community was pleased by this assistance by the government officials in resolving their labor issues and keeping minorities at bay.
Evidence of racial harassment by government agents was also widespread. Reports and complaints were common about beatings, rough treatment, and verbal abuse. Given no opportunity to post bail for release from jail, the gathered individuals were held until the next deportation bus, ship, or train was available. As intended these governmental razzias created chaos and a climate of fear across the nation in Mexican communities. Many, including U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry, lived in constant fear that they would be next. A large number of Mexican immigrants chose to leave on their own accord and returned to Mexico as a result.
One of the more infamous razzias was La Placita raid in Los Angeles, which was conducted on February 26, 1931. Agents sealed off and then swept through a city park that was popular among the Mexican American population. The orchestrated sweep resulted in about 30 Mexicans, five Chinese, and one Japanese being detained.
Deportation efforts continued under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-1945). As part of the New Deal reorganization of government, in 1933 President Roosevelt combined the two agencies charged with immigration and naturalization matters into one agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, see sidebar). During the time period of August 1933 to May 1934, 1,279 Mexicans were deported.
Supposedly aliens had legal protections against such arbitrary deportation efforts. If a person could prove they had legally resided in the United States continuously for five years they could not be deported without the government showing specific cause. Officials, however, often overlooked this legal requirement. Also, in addition to not having warrants, the mandate to notify foreign consuls before deportation of individuals was frequently ignored. Very often Mexican consuls only learned about the deportation after the person had already left the United States; therefore they had little opportunity to become involved. Furthermore, many Mexicans had little knowledge of U.S. immigration and deportation laws. Detainees could only see lawyers with approval of the immigration officials. Usually they could not have access to a lawyer since U.S. deportation officers did not consider deportation hearings to be formal judicial proceedings. A lawyer would normally only be involved if the INS decision to deport was formally appealed and the case went to court.
Such U.S. deportation practices during Hoover’s term of office were the subject of an official inquiry. The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, otherwise known as the Wickersham Commission, issued a report denouncing such government tactics. However, Secretary Doak denied all charges and successfully appealed for public support and as a result, little was changed.
Other Repatriation Efforts
Besides deportation other efforts to repatriate Mexican Americans also began. Unlike deportation that is a formal federal matter, more general repatriation efforts were made by local law enforcement and private organizations. Unlike the militaristic and legal nature of deportation, repatriation relied more on intimidation and enticements, such as the allure of free transportation to Mexico. However due to its magnitude this type of repatriation took a good deal of logistical planning.
Among the organizations strongly supporting repatriation were labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and “patriotic” organizations such as the America for Americans Club. Repatriation became a highly organized effort, which focused largely on Mexican American populations in large cities from California to the Midwest. The effects were sweeping and as a result some Mexican American communities disappeared altogether.
In response to the pressures, immigrants left for Mexico through various means of transportation. Trains, cars, buses, trucks, and ships streamed southward in the early 1930s toward Mexico, while the poorest journeyed on foot. Shiploads of 500 or 600 people would leave Southern California ports for destinations in Mexico, many using any available space on the open decks or in empty hulls. Trains, capable of cheaply carrying hundreds of repatriates, became the most common means of travel and boxcars and cattle cars were also often used. Others journeyed in overloaded cars and trucks traveling over dangerous roads. Most immigrants left the United States with expectations of someday returning when economic conditions improved and they returned to Mexican communities, which were already living in poverty before the Depression. Many repatriates joined family members to work in the fields for food. Most Mexican authorities were displeased to see more hungry citizens arrive and were angry with the rough treatment Mexican citizens and Mexican Americans in the United States received.
Repatriation efforts slowed after 1932, after the period between 1929 and 1932, when 365,000 people left for Mexico. Approximately 75,000 Mexicans were repatriated from Los Angeles area alone. From 1933 to 1937 only 90,000 left the United States for Mexico.
Economic Hardships of the Depression
Many resisted repatriation and avoided deportation. By the 1930s a generation had grown up in the Mexican American communities with no personal attachments to Mexico. The communities were the only home they knew and they had no intention of moving. Those remaining in the United States suffered from the Great Depression’s economic woes and unemployment rates in Mexican communities averaged 50 percent. Access to public works projects for any minority was limited.
As many were leaving, far fewer were entering the United States. The lack of job opportunities, in addition to U.S. immigration policies discouraged many legal and illegal aliens from entering the country. From 1925 to 1929 2,474,500 Mexican immigrants had entered the country. Between 1930 and 1934 only 1,216,396 entries were recorded. Those admitted in the 1930s were mostly Mexicans joining family members already settled in the United States.
The wages of agricultural workers sharply dropped from a monthly income of almost $61 in 1930 to $30 in 1933, or from $2.55 a day down to $1.40 a day. Some workers were earning only 15 ¢ an hour for their labor. Faced with racial discrimination, low pay, and poor working and living conditions, Mexican American farm laborers increased efforts begun in the late 1920s to organize unions. In 1933 the Mexican Farm Labor Union led a widespread strike in southern California demanding a minimum wage of 25¢ per hour. Some concessions were gained by the strike. The Confederation of Mexican Farmers and Workers Unions (Confederacion de Uniones de Campesinos y Obreros Mexicanos—CUCOM) became the most active farmworker union in California. CUCOM had 10,000 members by 1935. However, organized strikes and union activity between 1933 and 1939 were often met with threats and violence from the growers. Throughout the decade numerous strikes involving Mexicans and Mexican Americans occurred in cotton and celery fields of California, the pecan industry in Texas, coal mines in New Mexico, and the steel industry of Chicago. The strikers often met strong resistance. For example, California growers would hire men as strikebreakers to physically intimidate the strikers. Such frequent violent reactions by the growers clearly discouraged many workers from participating in strikes.
Mexican American women became active as well, in industrial unions. With many Mexican women working as seamstresses in the garment industry, Rosa Pesotta became a well-known labor organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A massive strike in 1933 brought garment production in Los Angeles to a stop. The strikers prevailed as workers received a new contract containing increased wages.
By the 1920s the Chinese population in the United States was in decline due to stiff legal restrictions on immigration provided by the 1924 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting Asian entry into the country. The construction and farm work that had drawn Chinese males to the United States, primarily in the Far West region, throughout the last half of the nineteenth century was no longer available.
Throughout the Great Depression the Chinese Exclusion Act remained firmly in place. In fact many Chinese returned to China because of the poor job opportunities and rampant discrimination in the United States. This out-migration led to a significant Chinese American population decline. In California the Chinese American population, comprising over 9 percent of the state’s population in 1860, fell below 1 percent by the end of the Great Depression. Aging and declining in number, the remnant Chinese American society was a largely bachelor society surviving under severe strain by the early 1930s. Chinese Americans experienced severe discrimination and were largely excluded from mainstream U.S. society. With the steady loss of agricultural employment throughout the 1920s and 1930s they increasingly turned to the big cities for social and economic survival. In 1910 slightly less than half of Chinese Americans lived in cities. By 1940 the figure had risen to just over 70 percent. A third of those living in large cities congregated in San Francisco through the Great Depression. Ethnic enclaves within the cities, known as Chinatowns, provided a major support system for daily Chinese American life.
Like other minorities, Chinese Americans did not benefit from New Deal programs to the extent that white society did. Because of past severe discrimination, many Chinese Americans feared U.S. authorities and had little knowledge of relief programs available. Consequently, having little assistance, they endured great hardships living in crowded, unsanitary conditions without basic necessities. Some communities were exceptions. For instance Chinese Americans found relief in San Francisco where the Chinese Six Companies organized federal relief. Over 13 percent of the Chinese population in San Francisco was on economic relief by October 1933, a higher percentage than the general population. In other cities, where no such organizations existed, far fewer Chinese Americans received aid.
Overall the Great Depression continued the exclusion of Chinese Americans from U.S. society and restricting them to low paying labor jobs. Ironically during this time many Chinese Americans who remained in the country acclimated themselves more to mainstream American life. Following World War II, Chinese Americans would play increasingly more prominent roles in the worlds of science, economics, and politics in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Unlike Chinese Americans who persistently filled low paying labor needs, by the 1930s, Japanese Americans, whose population was also highly concentrated on the West Coast, had achieved a lower middle-class economic status. These gains in status were set back during the Depression because Japanese Americans faced increased discrimination and segregation from white society. White America had great difficulty accepting Asians as equals particularly during bad economic times. With jobs increasingly scarce some Japanese Americans immigrated back to Japan, but most stayed. For example Seattle’s Japanese population decreased from 8,500 to 7,500 in the late 1930s.
Those Japanese Americans remaining in the United States primarily found employment in agriculture, forestry, commercial fishing, and wholesale and retail businesses. Most businesses that employed Japanese Americans were Japanese-owned. Even Japanese-grown crops were primarily marketed by Japanese-owned small businesses during the 1930s. As conditions worsened for farm laborers during the Great Depression the Japanese Farm Laborers Association became involved in a series of agricultural strikes in Southern California in 1936. Japanese American business leaders, however, including members of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, joined with the white establishment to quickly counter the workers’ efforts.
Those that left for Japan were largely those who had been born in Japan. As a result by the end of the 1930s, U.S.-born Japanese Americans had come of age and began to equal the number of foreign-born Japanese Americans. As a result, the Japanese American population was becoming increasingly Americanized.
Legislation on immigration passed during the New Deal era served to further restrict Asian entry into the country. Following the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in 1898, all Filipinos became American nationals. Exempt from the 1924 immigration ban on Asians, they remained free to enter the United States. The first substantial Filipino immigration began in 1907 with over 2,300 arriving in Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields by 1910. At that time only four hundred Filipinos were in the U.S. mainland. In the 1920s labor conflicts led most Filipinos to relocate to California in search of work. By 1930 over 30,000 Filipinos were working in California, primarily as migrant workers.
As with Mexican migrant workers, racism during the Great Depression heightened as the competition for work with non-minorities increased. By 1934 the open privilege of immigrating to the United States was changed dramatically. Congress passsed the Tydings-McDuffie Independence Act granting the Philippines independence from U.S. control by 1945. The act immediately withdrew free access to the States and established a very restrictive Filipino immigration policy. Congress even made available public funding to assist Filipino Americans living in the United States to return to the Phillipines.
During the difficult times of the Great Depression, grassroots organizations began appearing to assist ethnic groups living in the United States. For Mexican Americans these included the Latin American Club in Phoenix, the Mexican American Political Club in East Chicago, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Texas. These organizations pursued political action to gain improved economic opportunities. LULAC expanded to various parts of the nation and became active in civil rights issues on behalf of Mexican Americans.
Due to the fact that Japanese Americans were economically and socially isolated within their own communities throughout the Great Depression, social clubs, church groups, and athletic leagues were formed to provide mutual support. In San Francisco Japanese Americans gathered forming a Japantown. It became the site for the national headquarters of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The JACL, established in 1930, became a key organization for the younger Japanese generation growing up in America during the Depression. It stressed Americanization of Japanese Americans and exercise of their civil rights. Other more traditional organizations known asken-jin groups served both economic and social functions. The groups provided apprenticeships in certain trades or financial aid to persons in need.
The New Deal and Mexican Americans
The administration of President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to bring more humane governmental policies to all Americans. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, which was a combination of diverse economic and social programs designed to bring economic relief to those affected by the Great Depression. Regarding deportation, for example, after 1934 the number of Mexicans deported decreased by 50 percent. Some New Deal programs served to bring minority youth more into Anglo culture. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) employed not only black but many Mexican American youth as well. The CCC provided outdoor jobs for males between ages 18 and 25 in soil erosion control, tree planting, fighting forest fires, and many other similar activities. The enrollees received $30 a month with $25 of it required to go back to their homes. New Mexico CCC camps contained up to 95 percent Mexican American youth. The NYA provided work-study for students between the ages of 16 and 24 including work in school laboratories, libraries, and as teacher aides. The two programs also trained youth in farming, home economics, and how to live on small plots of land. But the CCC and NYA were not much help to many migrant workers because they often did not have a permanent address, a standard requirement of the programs. Similarly, the New Deal’s primary agricultural reform program operated by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was aimed at helping farm operators not farm laborers.
In some parts of the country New Deal work programs went further to benefit ethnic groups. They involved the recording of cultural traditions and even sought to restore some traditions that had been lost. These programs were aimed at documenting and preserving traditional music, art, folklore, and social customs. A key example of these types of programs took place in Northern New Mexico, an area heavily settled by Mexican Americans. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the NYA taught classes in such subjects as traditional Mexican craft woodworking. Many who became highly respected artists later in the twentieth century learned their crafts in New Deal’s WPA classes, or were taught or influenced by those who were.
Economic improvement of rural ethnic communities was also a concern. A few programs sought to revive native arts and crafts that could be sold to bring in revenue to assist the development of cottage industries in rural communities. Conservation measures meant to revive small subsistence farming, promoted nationally by the Roosevelt administration, were introduced to the small Mexican American farm operators of the Southwest. The WPA also brought teachers and schools to many ethnic communities that did not have them before in order to foster long-term economic improvement through education. These efforts also included popular hot lunch programs.
Though New Deal programs did make efforts to help the economic situation of Mexican Americans, the long-term economic gains were scant. Poverty of Mexican Americans and their dependence on the larger society continued through the remainder of the twentieth century. Some Mexican Americans were displeased with the New Deal and saw the New Dealers as taking an unwanted special protective relationship over them, like a parent to a child. The bureaucrats were telling the residents what they needed rather than letting them decide what might be best to improve their communities. This was much like the government’s treatment of American Indians throughout the nineteenth century. This parental-like relationship with Mexican American groups was perhaps at its peak during the New Deal as government officials attempted to “correct” what they considered economically inefficient social customs of ethnic groups. For example the high value placed on family ties often kept individuals in high unemployment areas and overrode opportunities to gain employment available in other parts of the country.
It was during the 1930s that Mexican American George I. Sanchez wrote the classic study, Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans. The study supported efforts to retain cultural distinctiveness and urged Mexican Americans to resist complete assimilation (blending) into white American culture. Sanchez focused on maintaining cultural pluralism—different cultural groups maintaining their traditional values and their own autonomy while still participating within a larger society.
Ironically the “whitening” of the farm labor force resulting from deporting and repatriating Mexicans and the population decline of Asians led to rising concerns over the hardships faced by farm laborers. The public and government were not as concerned when it was primarily ethnic groups working in such deplorable conditions. But with a greater percentage of white laborers, state and federal programs were created to address the needs of farm workers. A national labor union of agricultural workers was also established. In California the State Emergency Relief Administration established the Division of Rural Rehabilitation in 1934. These federal and state programs also served to benefit the ethnic minority workers still employed in the fields.
Recovery from the Great Depression
As with other segments of society, World War II mobilization brought new job opportunities as well as military service to ethnic group members. The war ended the deportation/repatriation era as the demand for Mexican labor increased once more. The doors were not opened, however, to other ethnic groups. Many attempting to flee the spread of Nazism were denied entrance to the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Following the attack on U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their jobs and homes and were taken to detention camps as a national security measure and were not released until late 1944. In contrast, World War II dramatically improved Chinese American’s position in U.S. society since China served as a military ally in the war against Japan.
A Land of Immigrants
Settlement of North America came in waves with peoples generally arriving from different parts of the world at different times. After thousands of years of American Indian settlement explorers and colonists began arriving in earnest in the seventeenth century largely from Western and Northern Europe. Soon came black slaves transported from Africa.
In 1787 the U.S. Constitution paid little attention to ethnic relations and immigration matters. Those of Anglo-Saxon descent who controlled the early institutions of the United States saw little threat to their control of power. The Naturalization Act, passed by the first U.S. Congress in 1790, had very liberal citizenship requirements for immigrants who were primarily white Europeans at the time. Soon concerns over increasing numbers of refugees from European conflicts brought greater attention to immigration. Congress amended (revised) the act several times through the 1790s raising naturalization requirements from two to 14 years. Finally in 1800 Congress settled on a five-year residency requirement that stood through the next two centuries. Congress took no further major action on immigrant matters for the next eight decades until the 1880s.
Immigration began increasing after 1840 resulting in millions of immigrants settling in the United States by the 1920s. Before 1883 approximately 85 percent of immigrants were from northern and western Europe including Ireland, Britain, and Germany. This led to few concerns because their backgrounds and traditions were largely the same as those who founded the nation. Then immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe began arriving in larger numbers, raising greater issues over ethnic relations. European immigrants, who were primarily unskilled industrial laborers, stayed largely in the East. Asians who began to arrive in large numbers by 1849 found work in mines and agriculture on the West Coast. Mexican Americans were largely located in the Southwest including California.
Most immigrants came for a common purpose, economic improvement. Many were impoverished and poorly educated and the rapid industrial and agricultural growth of the United States between the 1850s and 1920s offered them opportunities that could not be found in their homeland. Approximately 25 million immigrants arrived between the 1880s and 1920s as U.S. industry was rapidly expanding and needed additional workers. Some came hoping to gain skills, save up some money, and then return home with an improved economic and social position.
Substantial hostility against immigrants arose in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly toward newly arrived peoples who looked, talked, or acted different from the mainstream. Congress, which has exclusive constitutional power to regulate immigration, began passing laws restricting entrance of new immigrants in 1875.
By the 1930s the manner in which these ethnic groups viewed each other was fairly well established. Skin color, language, appearance, religion, and customs distinguished groups from one another.
Growth of Mexican American Population
In the U.S. Southwest Mexican Americans have a long history. In some respects they are the oldest immigrant (or ethnic) group in the United States. The first Mexican Americans were those Mexican citizens living in the northern parts of Mexico that were annexed by the United States between 1836 and 1853. The annexation of Texas (1845), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican War (1848), and Gadsden Purchase (1853) took an immense area away from Mexico and added it to the United States. When the United States acquired these areas stretching from Texas to California, it also acquired approximately 80,000 Mexican colonists. They had earlier migrated from interior Mexico to its northern frontier joining the long resident American Indian population. The expansive area was sparsely settled by Mexican colonies and for years following U.S. acquisition the border between Mexico and the United States remained indistinct, with resident groups continuing free movement between the two countries.
Increasing economic opportunities through the late nineteenth century began enticing many more Mexicans to journey north. First the discovery of gold in California in 1848 attracted numerous Mexican miners from Sonora and other parts of Mexico to the California gold fields. Next, expansion of railroad lines into the Southwest in the 1880s brought great changes within the region. Mines and farms grew within easy reach of the new rail lines. These developments increased the demand for labor beyond what the small population already residing in the region could provide. Approximately 127,000 Mexicans came to the Southwest in the 1880s and 1890s as the region’s economy grew. By 1900 the rail system had integrated Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and northern Mexico allowing the Mexican population to gradually expand throughout the Southwest. Many moved to the cotton farms of Texas and sugar beet farms of Colorado after 1900.
Adaptation to American life proved difficult with almost all Mexican immigrants living in poverty, coming from the lower class of Mexico to join existing communities. Both the new immigrants and the long-time U.S. residents faced similar problems of ethnic discrimination.
The start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 triggered a major 20-year increase in immigration. Mexican citizens were fleeing the military draft, persecution, violence, and a declining economy as Mexico began implementing major economic reforms, forcing many small farmers off their land. This time middle-class families were also immigrating. In addition, the restrictions established by Congress against further Asian immigration led U.S. employers to look more to Mexican workers to fill vacant jobs. Mexicans were favored because they were considered as more readily accepting of low wages and poor working conditions, and less likely to protest, than some Asians and whites. World War I created further demand for Mexican immigrant laborers and opened up more jobs in other regions of the United States. By 1915 Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants were settling in Kansas City and Chicago. Travel was much easier and movement between the two countries was no longer limited to the immediate border area.
A white backlash against the growing number of Mexican immigrants increased. The American public viewed both Mexican Americans and aliens from Mexico as foreigners regardless of how long they had lived in the United States or their citizenship status. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 requiring literacy tests and placing an eight-dollar tax on each immigrant, known as a head tax. Literacy tests were designed to assess the immigrant’s understanding of the English language and immigration agents used the tests at border crossings. Those who did not pass were forced to return to the country they had left. American businesses, needing workers, found the head tax too exorbitant and thus the official demand for alien workers declined while efforts to bring in aliens illegally grew. Though the 1917 bill was aimed at southern and eastern Europeans, Mexicans felt its effects because the illiteracy rate in some Mexican areas was 85 percent. Business owners, however, pressured Congress to ease some requirements of Mexican agricultural workers, as they relied heavily on Mexican labor. Nevertheless, the restrictions, particularly the head tax, remained stiff leading to greater unauthorized immigration.
An economic recession in the early 1920s in the United States triggered an early wave of “repatriation” of unemployed workers journeying back to Mexico. This period quickly passed, however, and U.S. economic expansion of the 1920s brought more Mexican laborers northward. Besides agriculture and mining, now Mexicans increasingly found work in manufacturing and Mexican immigrant communities in the United States expanded further. As with earlier immigrants, most immigrants arriving in the 1910s and 1920s intended to return to Mexico after working in the United States for a while. Immigrants would try to make enough money in the United States so they could return and set up a small business or buy some good farmland. These immigrants maintained a strong emotional attachment to their home regions. In their new country, however, they faced racial discrimination, poverty, poor housing, police brutality, menial labor jobs, and general social rejection.
Job demands for Mexican laborers continued growing during the 1920s despite strong opposition from anti-immigrant advocates. For example Congress passed the National Origins Quota Act of 1924 but agricultural and mining businesses were able to convince Congress to exclude Mexicans and other Latin Americans from its restrictions. As a result over one million Mexican immigrants came to the United States between 1900 and 1930, mostly to become agricultural workers in the Southwest.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century immigrants arrived in the United States from various Asian nations including China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.
Chinese Americans played a significant role in developing the economy of the Western United States. Significant immigration of Chinese began with the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and it continued with the building of the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s and agricultural labor needs in the 1870s. Soon these California growers came to rely primarily on Chinese laborers to harvest their crops. Chinese also were responsible for the construction of hundreds of miles of levees in central California, converting marshes into farmland. By 1882 almost 300,000 Chinese were known to have entered the United States, however, never more than 125,000 Chinese were actually in the United States at any given time. Many returned to China permanently to rejoin families or temporarily to visit. Of these immigrants over 90 percent were adult males seeking labor jobs and many came from the same Kwangtung province of China. Consequently, these traditional Chinese clan associations served as support groups in the new social settings. The clans provided protection and mutual aid to Chinese who faced harsh conditions in the United States under severe discrimination. Ties to the home villages in China remained strong and many returned home to visit every few years and sent much of their earnings to their families.
By the late 1870s a strong anti-Chinese sentiment had grown, culminating in anti-Chinese demonstrations in California. Many believed the Chinese lowered wages causing the American standard of living to decline. They also accused Chinese of not assimilating into U.S. society causing further suspicion and mistrust among white Americans. Despite the relatively low numbers of Chinese aliens present, a fear of massive Chinese immigration gripped the United States.
With these fears and concerns rising among the general population, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that focused primarily on laborers. This act was the first effort by the U.S. government to restrict immigration from particular countries. An 1888 act expanded the prohibition to all Chinese, not just Chinese laborers, and the 1892 Geary Act called for deportation of those Chinese aliens in the country illegally. With anti-Chinese sentiments remaining high, riots broke out in 1893 in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Given the restrictions and public attitudes, the number of Chinese in the United States declined to a low of 60,000 in 1920. With the exclusion of Japanese, Asian people became the only ethnic group in U.S. history to be totally excluded from new entries.
Shortly after passage of the Chinese exclusion law stopping most Chinese immigration, Japanese immigration picked up. This immigration occurred on the West Coast as well as in Hawaii. Whereas Chinese immigration came primarily from a small part of the Kwangtung province of China, Japanese immigrants came from various parts of Japan. Only 10,000 Japanese lived in California in 1900 but the number began growing as 24,000 Japanese immigrated there between 1900 and 1910, most of which came looking for agricultural work. In addition several thousand Koreans and Asian Indians came to California between 1905 and 1917. Unlike the Chinese, Japanese began buying farmland and becoming growers themselves. During this time public pressure grew to limit Japanese immigration just as it had Chinese, but many in Congress viewed Japan as a more modernized nation than China. As a result no immigration laws restricting Japanese were passed during the early years of Japanese immigration. However, as Japanese gained property and provided strong competition with white businesses, pressure mounted to limit the number of Japanese in the United States as well. With continued public pressure, an agreement between the United States and Japan was reached in 1907 to limit immigration of laborers.
Finally Japanese immigration, like Chinese immigration, became prohibited by the sweeping Immigration Act of 1924. The act established ethnic limitations (known as “national origins quotas”) on entering the United States. A quota is the number of people allowed entry into the United States each year from a particular area. The quotas favored northern and western Europe the most, and Asia the least. The 1924 law essentially banned all Asian immigrants except those from the Philippines, as it was then under U.S. control.
Resentment in the United States against Minorities
Resentment against immigrants and citizens of ethnic minorities was rampant in the 1930s. Labor wanted to get the Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups out of the way. They resented that Mexican Americans worked for lower wages than union members and were often preferred by employers because of their industriousness and loyalty. Of course the Mexican Americans would have preferred higher wages but were happy to get any work at all. They came to be considered “part of the problem” during the Great Depression with the continuing economic decline in the United States. Solutions raised included prohibiting entry to the United States of more ethnic group members, deporting and repatriating those already in the country to supposedly free up more job opportunities, and decrease the number of “foreigners” on government welfare rolls. For ethnic minorities, it was a period of little economic opportunity, rampant discrimination, and often violence. What few economic and social gains had been made in earlier years were largely wiped out.
International Relations Affected
The further tightening of immigration laws and deportation of ethnic minorities strained international relations with other countries. Mexico took measures to cut back doing business with U.S. companies and was reluctant to enter into later immigration agreements. Many in foreign nations saw the United States as preaching democracy and equality on one hand and being outwardly discriminatory in daily life. Sensitive to this criticism the United States decreased the number of deportation raids after 1931. In the same vein of thought U.S. officials decided to back off on deportation raids in Southern California with the arrival of the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games in 1932, wishing to avoid bad publicity at such a time.
Lasting Impact of the New Deal
Despite the various cultural projects and activities implemented in such places as New Mexico in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, little evidence of them existed in the late twentieth century. In addition farm and rangeland conservation remained a key issue among Mexican American farmers. Agricultural production had actually declined in some areas of the Southwest and village cottage industries promoted by the New Deal in some areas largely disappeared. Mexican Americans were still poor and had limited employment opportunities. Approximately 27 percent of residents in 16 New Mexico counties heavily occupied by Hispanics received food stamps or other forms of public assistance in the 1990s. This area gained government attention again as part of the 1960s War on Poverty programs. What the New Deal programs did achieve for many was introduce the English language, teach business matters, provide a formal education for the first time, construct school buildings and roads, as well as provide Mexicans with a renewed sense of ethnic identity. Unfortunately World War II cut short much of the cultural and economic gains made by the New Deal programs.
The Great Depression posed major implications on the ethnic mix of the United States population and the relations between ethnic groups and the dominant society. The number of aliens in the United States decreased owing in part to increased human rights violations and a decline in economic opportunities. These trends changed following the Depression as the doors to immigration began to open again, however, anti-alien sentiment still persisted toward the end of the century.
A Decline of Immigrants
One implication of the Great Depression was the entry into the United States of far fewer people than before. Prior to the Depression, from 1921 to 1930, total immigration into the United States was 4.1 million persons. Almost 2.5 million came from Europe and 1.5 million from other nations of the Americas, primarily Mexico and Latin America and immigration from Asia was prohibited, particularly after 1924. In contrast, during the Great Depression years of 1931 to 1940 the number of immigrants from Europe fell below 350,000. The number rose to 621,000 in the 1940s and 955,000 from 1951 to 1957. The number of Mexican and Asian aliens within the United States actually declined. Besides immigration restrictions, this flow out of the United States was due to deportation and repatriation policies and simply because many sought better economic opportunities elsewhere. Other implications involved human rights violations and declining job opportunities. All of these trends largely reversed after World War II.
Human Rights Violations
Efforts to deport and repatriate Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans by the federal and local governments involved significant violations of their legal rights. Despite this issue, the general public largely encouraged the activity. U.S. authorities did not see Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans as permanent members of U.S. society. For example, of those expelled in the 1930s without specific legal cause, 60 percent were children born in the United States, which made them legal U.S. citizens even if their parents were not. Consequently the United States was arbitrarily expelling U.S. citizens without cause.
Such sweeping violations of human rights triggered by widespread suspicions, fear, and ethnic hostility was to occur once again a short time later. From 1942 to 1944 during World War II Japanese Americans were taken en masse from their homes on the West Coast and placed in long-term internment camps. The U.S. Army rounded up both citizens and non-citizens with the backing of President Roosevelt and Congress. Much like the Mexican Americans in the previous decade, the Japanese Americans were forced to leave jobs and sell their homes and belongings with only days notice. As a result many suffered major economic losses. Also like Mexican aliens during repatriation, authorities transported the Japanese Americans by train or bus, this time to makeshift and unsanitary detention camps in hot and dry desert areas of the American West. Such inhospitable conditions combined with inadequate food set the stage for widespread disease. The camps were often greatly overcrowded with no privacy. A total of 112,000 Japanese Americans were detained of which 70,000 were U.S. citizens. Finally in December 1944, long after the threat of Japanese invasion had ended, they were freed.
Mexican American Economics
Declining job opportunities coupled with U.S. efforts to force “foreigners” out of the country led to almost a 50 percent decline in the Mexican population during the 1930s. Such a loss of population and income posed dramatic effects on Mexican American communities. The social and economic development of Mexican American communities established in previous decades was particularly affected and some communities dissipated altogether. With so many Mexican Americans repatriated and deported, those Mexican American businessmen not expelled themselves saw their businesses decline substantially because of fewer customers. The decline of these communities posed far more consequences for the Mexican American population than any other impact in the twentieth century, even more than the illegal immigrant issues of the 1980s and 1990s.
With U.S. mobilization efforts for World War II, demand for workers increased again. Through an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments, a temporary farm worker program was established called the Bracero Program, bracero meaning manual laborer. Not wanting to see another era of repatriation occur again in the future the Mexican government was at first hesitant to agree to increased immigration from Mexico to the United States. The program, which lasted from 1943 until 1964, allowed U.S. labor agents into Mexico to recruit thousands of workers. Those recruited received contracts to work in the United States, usually in agricultural communities and railroad camps. Some braceros stayed in the United States after the program ended while others came back to the United States later after initially returning to Mexico. The state of Texas, where anti-Mexican sentiment remained strong from the 1930s, chose not to participate.
End of Race Quotas
With China becoming a U.S. ally against Japan in World War II, Congress repealed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. This marked the beginning of the end of using ethnic factors to regulate immigration and naturalization. Quotas on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country remained tight though. Further improvement in policy toward ethnic groups, however, came in the following years as the hostilities of the 1930s melted away to some degree. The privilege of naturalization was extended to Filipinos in 1946 though immigration of new Filipinos was prohibited. The Nationality Act of 1952, known as the McCarran Act, simplified the national origins consideration of potential immigrants. The 1952 act based the annual quota from all countries on a flat one-sixth of one percent of the population as recorded in the 1920 census.
Major change in policy came with the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished national origin quotas. In their place, the act established hemispheric quotas, which were still substantial. For example, until 1965 no limitations applied to the Western Hemisphere. The act set an annual limitation of 120,000. The eastern hemisphere was set at 170,000 annually with a limit of 20,000 from any one country. Those who benefited most from the new act were Asians. The Asian American population, which rose modestly from 250,000 in 1940 to 900,000 in 1960, skyrocketed to 3.5 million in 1980 and 7.3 million in 1990 aided by a high birthrate as well. Asian Americans became the fastest growing immigrant group in the Untied States. They also experienced a dramatic rise in image and status.
Anti-Immigrant Mood of the Late-Twentieth Century
Through the remainder of the twentieth century the United States continued to be a nation of immigrants as the 2000 census reflected. The resulting cultural pluralism was increasingly recognized but fears and concerns over ethnic groups, rampant in the 1930s, increased again. Concerns focused on job competition and lowered wages due to Mexican workers. Congress provided greater support to INS border patrols in catching illegal aliens and sealing off borders. By the late 1970s the government was catching over one million illegal aliens each year and the border between the United States and Mexico became a controversial issue between the two nations. Because of poor economic conditions within Mexico and the willingness of U.S. businesses to hire illegal aliens, the flow continued despite increased INS efforts. In 1986 in a renewed effort at slowing illegal immigration Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The act placed the burden on U.S. employers not to hire illegal aliens and it also allowed many existing illegal aliens a chance to gain legal status. Despite the act, the illegal immigration issue continues to grow and remains a major issue at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Cesar Estrada Chavez (1927-1993)
Cesar Chavez, most noted as the leader of the United Farm Workers of America labor union in the 1960s, grew up during the Great Depression. At the age of six, he and his family packed their belongings in a wagon and moved off of the long-held family property in North Gila Valley near Yuma, Arizona. They lost the property when a bank would not approve much-needed loans. Apparently, as they later discovered, others had wanted the land. Two years later they packed again, this time heading to California to find migrant work where they moved from farm to farm harvesting crops. In an eight-year period young Chavez attended 37 schools. At times the family would only make $5 for an entire week of work and at one time they lived under a bridge. Chavez gained national attention in 1965 when members of his union working in the California vineyards supported striking Filipino farm workers against California grape growers. Chavez became an effective and widely recognized spokesman for the poor.
William N. Doak (1882-1933)
Doak was Secretary of Labor under President Herbert Hoover and brought with him a strong anti-Mexican bias as he set an arbitrary figure of 400,000 illegal Mexican immigrants to be deported. Doak was eager to gain labor support for Hoover as well as to the business community who strongly backed Hoover. The reason being that labor wanted aliens removed from the United States job market to open up jobs for white Americans. Doak firmly believed that if aliens were sent back to Mexico plenty of jobs would be available for others and the Great Depression would finally come to an end.
Pedro J. Gonzalez (?-?)
In addition to targeting the common laborer for deportation, U.S. immigration agents also focused on social activists of ethnic groups. Authorities labeled the activists as communists or radicals and targeted them for deportation. One such person who attracted their interest was Pedro J. Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a folk singer and radio idol in Los Angeles who had a morning radio program called “Los Madrugadores.” He became Los Angeles’ first Spanish-speaking disc jockey. He came to the United States from Mexico in 1924 and later became a U.S. citizen. An advocate for social justice, Gonzalez used his radio program in the early 1930s to denounce U.S. policies that discriminated against Mexican Americans. Branded a radical by U.S. authorities, Gonzalez found himself falsely accused of felony charges, then convicted, and finally deported. Through his tangles with authorities, he became a hero to many Mexican Americans and a symbol of Mexican cultural pride. Gonzalez was later the subject of highly acclaimed documentaries produced by Cinewest for KPBS in San Diego, “Ballad of an Unsung Hero” in 1983 (30 minutes) and “Break of Dawn” in 1989 (100 minutes).
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
A famed American novelist, John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. He was best known for his books addressing the plight of farm workers during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, was about the desperate situation of migrant California farm workers.
Steinbeck was born in the key agricultural area of Salinas, California, where Mexican and Mexican American farm laborers were prevalent. His first book to gain widespread popularity was Tortilla Flat (1935), a story of Mexican Americans. His next novel, In Dubious Battle (1936), was much more serious, focusing on striking agricultural laborers. His Of Mice and Men (1937) also centered on migrant laborers. Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and was made into an award winning Hollywood movie in 1940.
Charles P. Visel (?-?)
Visel was director of the Los Angeles Citizens’ Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief. Like U.S. Labor Secretary Doak, Visel believed California’s economic problems would be solved with mass removal of Mexicans. In 1930 and 1931 Visel organized deportation and repatriation efforts to remove Mexicans from California. He relied on local police, federal immigration authorities, and private organizations to conduct deportation raids and spread fear in the Mexican American communities.
Support in Chinatowns
The following remarks were made by a Chinatown resident in the mid-1920s. It reflects increasing reliance on the largely self-contained ethnic communities located within large, mostly white communities. The ethnic enclaves became even more important in maintaining a quality of life for immigrants during the Great Depression as job opportunities and discrimination escalated (quoted in Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850,1988, p. 70).
Most of us can live a warmer, freer and a more human life among our relatives and friends than among strangers … Chinese relations with the population outside Chinatown are likely to be cold, formal, and commercial. It is only in Chinatown that a Chinese immigrant has society, friends and relatives who share his dreams and hopes, his hardships, and adventures. Here he can tell a joke and make everybody laugh with him; here he may hear folktales told which create the illusion that Chinatown is really China.
A loud voice in the U.S. Congress against ethnic groups, Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, sponsored numerous immigration bills in the mid-1930s. To support his views, he wrote an article published in The Saturday Evening Post(April 20, 1935) entitled “The Immigration Crisis.” In it he claimed that unemployment problems would not exist if the 20 million immigrants allowed in the United States since 1880 had been denied entry in the first place. The article catered to the racial fears and prejudices of the general public.
The total white population found in the United States by the first census of 1790, was 3,172,444. It was all English-speaking save for the little island of Pennsylvania Dutch, and for the French and Spanish on the frontiers. It was practically homogeneous, with similar political, institutional and cultural traditions. It was this homogeneous race hat produced an extraordinary group of men of talent and ability … at the Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia …
From the conclusion of the war between the states until the beginning of the World War, the great alien invasion of the United States took place … [B]etween 1890 and 1910 more than 8,000,000 immigrants reached our shores from Southern and Eastern Europe … [as a result of an] unwise and destructive [immigration] policy … If our nation had awakened … to the perils of its immigration policy and promptly excluded the 20,000,000 or more of aliens that have since joined the competitive ranks of labor, agriculture and business, it is reasonable to believe that the unemployment problem would never have assumed such serious and unprecedented proportions in this country. In fact, it is not improbably that a labor surplus would not have been known in our generation … A serious mistake had been made when the quota [of the 1924 Immigration Act] was not applied to the Western Hemisphere … especially Mexico … I am advised by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration that according to their estimate … 6,400,000 aliens are deriving their livelihood from employment in this country that would otherwise [go] to American citizens … [The new bill] which I introduced … will further restrict immigration by reducing the existing quotas 60 per cent and apply them to countries of this hemisphere.
Suggested Research Topics
- From novels set in the Great Depression, concentrate on the unique struggles experienced by people of various cultures in the United States. Write a diary of day to day problems facing an immigrant family that seeks food and jobs during the Great Depression, and finding support from others in the ethnic community. How do these experiences possibly differ from white American experiences in the Great Depression?
- Trace the life of Cesar Chavez through the Great Depression and afterward including the founding of the United Farm Workers of America. What influences did he draw from his childhood in the Great Depression?
- Why were ethnic groups treated with particular hostility during the Great Depression? In good times why did white workers not want jobs that ethnic workers took?