Crossing the line
I was born in California to Mexican immigrants but have lived most of my life in El Paso, where the anti-immigrant fervor that’s sweeping the U.S. today is nothing new. In fact, the first public calls for a fence along the Rio Grande to keep out unwanted foreigners were heard in El Paso a century ago, in 1904. But back then -- unlike what the Republicans want to do these days with their proposal for a 700-mile border fence -- they weren’t trying to keep the Latin hordes out. It was the Chinese who were the undesirable aliens.
Mexican border crossers were not considered illegal in the United States until 1917, when a new law imposed formidable barriers to entry: a literacy test, a head tax and a prohibition against contract labor. Mexican nationals for the first time needed a passport to enter the United States. That’s also the year that the U.S. entered World War I.
The war stirred deep feelings of paranoia and anti-foreigner patriotism in this country. Americans were afraid that Germans would launch bombing raids from Mexico. As a protest against Germany, Americans changed the name of frankfurters to hot dogs and sauerkraut to “liberty cabbage.” And to protect the country from the threat of typhus, U.S. Customs agents began the mandatory delousing of Mexican border crossers at the El Paso-Juarez international bridge; 127,000 people were subjected to this procedure in 1917 alone.
All immigrants from the interior of Mexico, and those whom U.S. Customs officials deemed “second-class” residents of Juarez, were required to strip completely, turn in their clothes to be sterilized in a steam dryer and fumigated with hydrocyanic acid, and stand naked before a Customs inspector who would check his or her “hairy parts” -- scalp, armpits, chest, genital area -- for lice. Those found to have lice would be required to shave their heads and body hair with clippers and bathe with kerosene and vinegar.
My great-aunt, Adela Dorado, would tell our family about the humiliation of having to go through the delousing every eight days just to clean American homes in El Paso. She recalled how on one occasion the U.S. Customs officials put her clothes and shoes through the steam dryer and her shoes melted.
If anything, this kind of treatment at the international checkpoints exacerbated illegal border crossings. Mexican border crossers who didn’t want to subject themselves to the baths chose to avoid the designated entry points. As a result, in 1921, the U.S. Public Health Service created a mounted quarantine guard to bring Mexican immigrants to the disinfection sites.
Beyond the indignity of the process, there was a real danger of being burned in a fire. That happened in 1916 in the El Paso city jail, when someone struck a match near a tub during the mayor’s disinfection campaign and 27 prisoners burned to death.
On Jan. 28, 1917, a 17-year-old Juarez maid named Carmelita Torres, who crossed the border daily to clean houses in El Paso, refused to take a bath and be disinfected. Press accounts estimated that, by noon, she was joined by “several thousand” demonstrators at the border bridge. The protest became known as “the Bath Riots.”
The local Anglo press did everything it could to sensationalize the typhus threat from Mexico, although one U.S. Public Health Service official stated that the typhus problem in El Paso was no worse than it was in most major cities in the U.S. In 1917, there were 31 typhus cases in the U.S. and only three typhus-related fatalities in El Paso.
Yet the delousings went on for decades along the U.S.-Mexican border, long after the threat had passed of either a typhus epidemic or German bombers. Even up to the late ‘50s, during the guest-worker bracero program, Mexican laborers were still being sprayed with DDT before being allowed into the U.S. Why? Because the paranoia not only was about physical contamination, it also was about the cultural and genetic kind.
During the early part of the 20th century, California eugenicists -- many of them members of the Human Betterment Foundation, such as Stanford Chancellor David Starr Jordan and Los Angeles Times owner Harry Chandler -- played a leading role in restricting the flow of Mexicans into the United States. To prevent “mongrelization” and defilement of what Jordan called the “Saxon and Goth blood of the nation,” they spoke out against miscegenation and called for forced sterilization, birth control and the exclusion of inferior genetic stock through reform of the nation’s immigration laws.
In an article titled “Perils of the Mexican Invasion,” Samuel Holmes -- who taught eugenics at UC Berkeley in the ‘20s -- argued that Mexicans were “the least assimilable of the foreign stocks.” These Anglo intellectuals and civic leaders were highly influential in helping to draft the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which established the first U.S. Border Patrol to keep what racial hygienists saw as “genetically inferior aliens” out of the country.
A few years ago, several state governments, including California’s, apologized for the thousands of forced sterilizations carried out in the name of eugenics and “human betterment” between 1909 and into the 1970s.
How long will it take for a government official to apologize for the hundreds of thousands of forced delousings with noxious chemicals along the U.S.-Mexico border? Will anyone ever apologize for the connection between eugenics and U.S. immigration laws?
How many decades will it take for someone to ask forgiveness for today’s inhumane immigration policies, which have resulted in the deaths of so many undocumented immigrants in recent years? Is it easier to apologize for history that seems safely stored away in the past than for history that keeps repeating itself, over and over again, here and now?