Prior to the Great Depression

Before the Great Depression, immigrants from other countries came to the U.S. in waves. In fact, historians recognize three major immigration movements in the United States. These include the first period between 1815-1860, the second between 1860-1890, and the third one between 1890-1914. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Great Britain were significant in the first two movements while Mexican immigrants were significant in the end of the third movement. In 1900, 100,000 people of Mexican descent lived in the U.S.1 By 1930 the Mexican population in the U.S. had reached 1.5 million. This increase is credited to "push" and "pull" factors. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution had begun. With the bad conditions in Mexico, thousands of Mexicans left their homeland. At the same time, Mexicans were attracted to better wages in the U.S.. During this period, industries like agriculture, transportation, and mining lobbied to prevent restrictions of Mexican immigrants and between 1910 and the start of the Great Depression, more than a million Mexicans came into the United States.2

With growing numbers of Mexicans in the U.S., sentiments against Mexicans by Americans also surfaced and support for repatriation grew. Repatriation during the depression would not be the first time Mexicans would have been repatriated however. Some scholars like Procter, recognize the first large-scale migration as being at the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848. For example, San Antonio was practically abandoned by Mexicans after 1848 and a large number, under the sponsorship of the Mexican government were repatriated in the later 1840s.3 Like wise, anti-Mexican sentiment did not begin only from the conditions that came with the Great Depression but had been growing since the mid-1920s. In 1924, the passage of the Quota Act sealed off immigration from parts of Europe and Asia. When President Coolidge signed the law he stated that, "America must be kept American." Countries from the Western Hemisphere however were not included. Small farmers who felt that they could not compete with growers who hired cheap labor, local governments with aliens on their relief roles, and the American Federation of Labor found a spokesman in the House of Representatives to support restrictions on immigration. This was John C. Box, a Democrat from Texas. He introduced a bill to include Mexico in the National origins quota system. The attitudes of many Americans towards Mexicans were very negative and are best illustrated in a quote by Dr. Roy Garis, a eugenics authority from Vanderbilt University. In a report prepared by him for Representative Box in support of this bill, Garis stated:

‘[The Mexicans’] minds run to nothing higher than animal functions – eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery. In every huddle of Mexican shacks one meets the same idleness, hordes of hungry dogs, and filthy children with faces plastered with flies, disease, lice, human filth, stench, promiscuous fornication, bastardy, lounging, apathetic peons and lazy squaws, beans and dried chili, liquor, general squalor, and envy and hatred of the gringo. These people sleep by day and prowl by night like coyotes, stealing anything they can get their hands on, no matter how useless to them it may be. Nothing left outside is safe unless padlocked or chained down. Yet there are Americans clamoring for more of this human swine to be brought over from Mexico.’

This is only one individuals attitude about Mexicans well, but this sentiment was not uncommon during the 1920s and the Great Depression. It was attitudes like this one that influenced and contributed to repatriation of Mexicans. The Harris bill did pass in a vote 51 to 16. However, it was never enforced.4

Another quote, which illustrates the sentiment against Mexicans, is one by Secretary of Labor William A. Doak. He said, "My conviction is that by strict limitation and a wise selection of immigration, we can make America stronger in every way, hastening the day when our population shall be more homogenous." On January 6,1931, Doak requested that congress appropriate funds for the deportation of illegal "aliens" from the U.S.. Newspapers seized this idea and came up with the "take care of our own" theme.5 The sentiments of Garis and Doak where aimed at placing restrictions on immigration but they also contributed to the removal of immigrants from the U.S.. By the time the depression started sentiments against Mexicans were already in place. The Great depression only renewed congressional debate about immigration.


1.Rodolfo Acuna, Ocupied America 3rd ed. (New York, 1959), 3.

2. Michael R, Ornelas, Beyond 1848 (Dubuque, 1993).

3. Ben H. Procter, "Great Depression" in "Texas State Historical Association Online", [].

4. Acuna, Occupied America, 200.

5. Ibid., 203.