Painful Past

November 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: Maria Ofelia Acosta is a 72-year-old grandmother of three, who lives a tranquil, suburban life of retirement in a Los Angels suburb. But as a young child, Acosta says she and her family were victims of a little-known and little-told chapter in American history: The mass deportation of people, many of them U.S. citizens, to Mexico.

Acosta says her family’s odyssey began in June 1932. That’s when her father, a legal U.S. resident from Mexico, was approached by federal authorities. He was one of many Latino laborers on a public works project in northern California.

MARIA OFELIA ACOSTA: He thought maybe they’re going to give us a better job. And then they said, “We decided to send you to Mexico, so line up and come one by one and get your tickets.”

JEFFREY KAYE: After a bus trip to Los Angeles, the family was put aboard a train bound for Chihuahua, Mexico, where Acosta, a U.S.-born citizen, lived until she was a teenager.

MARIA OFELIA ACOSTA: It was kind of embarrassing, you know, when they throw you out. I mean, it’s nothing to brag about.

JEFFREY KAYE: The expulsions are chronicled in the book “Decade of Betrayal” by California State University professors Raymond Rodriquez and Francisco Balderrama. The authors document how, during the Depression, upwards of a million people — more than half of them U.S. citizens — were sent to Mexico. The goal was to reduce welfare rolls and cut down on competition for jobs. The program, they say, was also driven by racism.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA, Historian: The idea that a Mexican is a Mexican, that they are foreign, that they are not part of this country even though they have lived here, they have worked here, they’ve build lives here. They’re still not part of this country. There is no distinction made in terms of legal residence, no distinction made in terms of those that are U.S. citizens, those that are American citizens of Mexican descent. No distinction made.

JEFFREY KAYE: The program largely ended with World War II, when a labor-hungry U.S. needed as many workers as it could find. Acosta eventually returned to the U.S., finding work as a seamstress in L.A. Now, efforts are underway in California to seek justice for the victims of the repatriation program.

SPOKESMAN: This morning, we are going to be examining a tragic part of United States history.

JEFFREY KAYE: California Democratic state Sen. Joseph Dunn has conducted an investigation and held hearings in which people exiled to Mexico told their stories.

EMILIA CASTANEDA: I was frightened. I had never been to Mexico. We left with just one large trunk full of belongings in 1935. No furniture, a few medical utensils, a small ceramic pitcher, because it reminded me of my mother.

JOSEPH DUNN: What our intent is is to have both the federal government and the state of California create commissions to investigate the deportation program beyond what our resources allowed us to do, to really find out exactly who was involved, where the critical decisions were made, why they were made.

JEFFREY KAYE: So-called repatriation trains departed regularly from Los Angeles. The deportations took place with the cooperation of Mexican authorities, who saw resettling Mexicans and Mexican Americans as a national obligation. Train departures were widely publicized in the city’s English and Spanish language press.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: The scene was primarily that of women and children crying. Men being very, very pensive about what was to happen to them. The trains were locked because there were cases early in the period in which some of the repatriates at the very end would try to escape.

JEFFREY KAYE: In 1931, at La Placita Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, one roundup turned violent. Federal agents beat up men and women and drove them into vans. But more often, city and county officials used persuasion, not Billy clubs, to encourage people to cross the border, even enlisting social workers in the effort.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: The social workers with their caseload would go to individual families, knock on the door, tell Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez, “We think that you’ve been on relief for quite a long time. We think that you would be better off among your own people. We think you would be better off in Mexico.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Such arguments resonated with many people who, confronted with America’s bleak economic situation, went willingly to Mexico to find a better life. But once they arrived in Mexico, life for many exiles often got worse. That was the case with Acosta’s family.

MARIA OFELIA ACOSTA: It was a setback for us, because I could have gone to school. My family could have gone to school — my brothers, my sisters, you know, we could have had a better life here. But throwing us over, we didn’t go to school there, we didn’t go to school here, so … I don’t know, it’s kind of … they mess it up.

JEFFREY KAYE: Although expulsions occurred across the country, Los Angeles was the epicenter of the program. Municipal and county authorities, with the assistance of business leaders, established homegrown immigration departments to oversee the deportations.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: Here in L.A. County, they set up a desk called deportation, and that type of thinking then led federal authorities to say, “Hey, let L.A. County operate like a sovereign nation; let L.A. County organize trainloads of individuals and ship them to the border; let them go ahead and deport people, which is a function of the federal government.”

JEFFREY KAYE: State Senator Dunn is particularly troubled by what he says are documents showing that local governments such as Los Angeles County might have actually profited from the repatriations.

FRANCISCO BALDERRAMA: For families that owned homes, L.A. County engaged in the following program: Once the family was illegally deported, they would put a lien on that house for the cost of the transportation. Say a whole family was deported to Mexico, that might be $50. Since the family was gone, there was no one there to pay off that lien, they would foreclose the lien, and the county would take possession of that home, turn around and sell it for fair market value and pocket the cash.

JEFFREY KAYE: To correct these injustices, Dunn says California should establish a financial compensation program for deportation victims. Similar reparations were paid to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

JOSEPH DUNN: I wish we could turn the clock back and give them their lives back. We can’t. The only way to make amends is through an exchange of financial … of money. It’s gross, but it is the way our system is built.

JEFFREY KAYE: Dunn’s efforts have been supported by many of his fellow Democrats in the state legislature, as well as by California’s Spanish language press, which has closely covered the hearings. Opponents of Dunn’s idea argue that California, mired in a multibillion dollar deficit, can’t afford to pay people for long-ago wrongs. More philosophically, others argue that there are limits when it comes to correcting the injustices of the past.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: We try to go back and rectify everything in the past, but the problem with that is there is no end to it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Conservative social critic Victor Davis Hanson writes about history and culture from his farm near Fresno.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: The wounds of the past are something that should be talked about, they are something that should be recognized. That’s the job of historians, that’s the job of journalists, that’s the job of the public, that’s the job of public debate. But if you think you are going to take the coercive power of the government to go back and investigate something and then punish people in the present, it is not going to work.

JEFFREY KAYE: But some victims aren’t waiting for the government’s help. They recently filed a class action lawsuit, seeking unspecified damages from the state of California, as well as L.A. city, county, and the Chamber of Commerce for their roles in the repatriation program. Acosta is ambivalent about such actions.

MARIA OFELIA ACOSTA: A lot of people say, “Hey, what do you want now? You going to sue?” I say, you know, no money can repay that. The years that you wasted your life, I mean.

JEFFREY KAYE: More than money or apologies, Acosta simply wants people to know about how her country, battered by economic hardships long ago, expelled many of its own citizens.