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Reparations Sought for ‘30s Expulsion Program

Times Staff Writer

With an emotional state Senate hearing and a class-action lawsuit, politicians and legal advocates launched a campaign Tuesday to win an apology and reparations for more than 1 million people of Mexican descent who were deported or forced to immigrate to Mexico during the 1930s.

The Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit accuses the state of California, the county and city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (now called the Los Angeles Area Chamber), and 500 other unnamed individuals and entities of violating the civil and constitutional rights of Emilia Castaneda of Riverside and other individuals sent to Mexico during the Depression-era campaign.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of organizing the campaign to “eliminate competition for jobs” and “decrease the public assistance rolls and save the money that would have otherwise been spent to help aid destitute individuals of Mexican ancestry.”

“This lawsuit goes to the essence of who we are as a state and the dignity of a people,” said attorney Raymond P. Boucher of the Los Angeles law firm of Kiesel, Boucher & Larson LLP. “We have to recognize that in the 1930s we used the Mexican population as a scapegoat. Until we take an honest look in the mirror, none of us is truly safe.”

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The lawsuit was timed to coincide with a hearing Tuesday conducted by Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana), chairman of the Select Committee on Citizen Participation. After nearly four hours of testimony, Dunn said his committee would likely ask the full Legislature to commission a state-funded study of the 1930s campaign while seeking congressional support for a national study.

Dunn is also preparing legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for victims who wish to file claims for damages. Although the campaign in the 1930s was referred to as repatriation, scholars estimate that more than 60% of the more than 1 million people sent to Mexico were U.S. citizens.

“They were deported for just one reason: They happened to be of Mexican descent,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s staff has spent the past year building on research by Francisco Balderrama, a Cal State Los Angeles professor of Chicano studies and history, and Raymond Rodriguez, a retired history professor at Long Beach City College, who co-wrote “Decade of Betrayal,” a 1995 book on the campaign.

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Balderrama testified Tuesday that the deportation and coerced emigration campaign organized by Los Angeles city and county officials -- in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce -- “became a model for the rest of the United States.”

In the Los Angeles effort, tens of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were loaded aboard trains and transported to Mexico. The campaign, which reflected widespread racist attitudes toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans at the time, had the assistance of state and federal authorities along with Mexican consular officials, Balderrama and Rodriguez testified.

Castaneda, 77, and another victim of the campaign, Michigan resident Jose Lopez, also 77, recalled the struggles their families endured after being coerced into immigrating to Mexico in the 1930s. Castaneda and Lopez were both born in the United States and thus were U.S. citizens at the time their families went to Mexico under pressure, both testified.

Castaneda, whose father was a bricklayer who had entered the United States to find work in 1915, described the harsh living conditions her family encountered in Mexico. They had to move 18 times as her father searched for work, she said. Castaneda had to stop her education and help support the family. Her father always proudly told people his son and daughter were U.S. citizens, she said.

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She eventually returned to the United States in 1944, at 17, after obtaining a copy of her birth certificate, which she showed to U.S. immigration authorities, she said.

“As an American, I didn’t deserve to be deported,” she said. “All Americans should know this is part of our history so we don’t have to experience this again.”

Lopez, whose father had found employment with Ford Motor Co. in the Detroit area in the 1920s, recalled his family’s struggles with hunger and disease during their years in Mexico after they were put aboard a Michigan expulsion train in 1931.

“I was not able to go to school except for a couple of years,” he said.

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He returned to the United States in 1945, in time to receive a World War II draft summons, he said. He was disqualified from service because of his small size, which he attributed in part to the family’s hunger and hardships in Mexico.

“I blame the entire U.S. government,” he said. “It was a great injustice.”

Kevin Johnson, an associate dean at the UC Davis School of Law, testified that the 1930s program violated both the constitutional and legal rights of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

“It’s a bedrock principle of U.S. immigration law that U.S. citizens cannot be removed” from the United States, he said. “This is why this episode is so troubling to me.”

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