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Unheralded mass deportation: Some recall forced Mexico trip

LOS ANGELES -- Ignacio Pina was 6 when immigration officers came to his Montana home, held his family behind bars for a week, then herded them onto a train for Mexico -- a country he and his five siblings had never seen.

"They just kicked us out with what we were wearing," the US-born Pina said, more than 70 years later.

It was 1931, the first year of a decade of effort to remove Mexicans to free up jobs in a US economy mired in the Great Depression. Estimates of the number of people caught in the raids ranged from 500,000 to 2 million; researchers agreed that they included tens of thousands of legal immigrants, as well as children like Pina, who were born in the United States.

"Mexican Repatriation," authorized by President Herbert H. Hoover and carried out in cooperation with local authorities, targeted areas with large Hispanic populations, mostly in California, Texas, and Michigan. It left emotional wounds that, for many, have not healed.

Pina, an 80-year-old retired railroad worker who lives in Bakersfield, still gets angry when he recalls how his family was uprooted and was forced to struggle to survive in a foreign country.

"It's a feeling I will have until I die," he said. "This government did a very wrong thing."

He and others have long sought an apology and an official acknowledgment of their plight in US history books. Now there is a chance they may get their wish.

The California Legislature has passed two bills addressing the issue: The first would create a privately funded commission to investigate Mexican Repatriation; the second would open a two-year window for victims to file damage claims since the statute of limitations has long since closed.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has until the end of the month to sign the bills, has not disclosed his position. Supporters are optimistic, given his recent appeal to fellow immigrants to join him in the Republican Party.

"One would hope that the governor's immigrant background would make him more sympathetic," said Francisco Estrada, the director of public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Supporters of the measures compare the survivors of the repatriation to the Japanese-Americans held at internment camps during World War II who received an apology and $20,000 in reparations from the US government in 1988. Representative Hilda Solis, a Democrat, plans to introduce a bill in Congress this year that would investigate the Depression-era deportations and that would consider whether reparations would be appropriate.

One challenge is that the number of survivors is unknown. Many who were deported never returned to the United States. Those who did are scattered. State Senator Joseph Dunn, a Democrat who authored the two state repatriation bills and who has researched the topic for two years, estimates that perhaps 50,000 are still alive, although his office has compiled a list of barely two dozen.

Another question is how much to pay people forced to give up homes and businesses, and thus required to make a new start in an impoverished country. "There is no dollar amount that could compensate them for what they went through," said Francisco Balderrama, a professor and a coauthor of "Decade of Betrayal," a book about the repatriation program.

Still, Dunn argues that the United States has an obligation to address the issue, in part to prevent a possible future mass deportation of a single ethnic group. "This is a forgotten injustice that needs to be corrected," he said.

Survivors, meanwhile, say they are eager to see official acknowledgment of their losses. But it must happen fast, they say.

One of Pina's brothers has died and he says three of his sisters, who live in Arizona, have health problems. Ruben Jimenez of Whittier, an 80-year-old retired probation officer whose family was forced to leave in 1932, is the only one of nine siblings still living. Others tell of similar losses and favor dropping claims for reparations to save time.

"If I were to get compensation, it wouldn't help me much because by the time I get it, I'll be dead," said Jose Lopez, 77, a retired auto worker in Detroit. "Really, all I want to do is tell the public what happened, because a lot of people don't know."

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