“I had never been to Mexico. We left with just one trunk full of belongings. No furniture. A few metal cooking utensils. A small ceramic pitcher, because it reminded me of my mother.” — Emilia Castañeda, born in the USA, deported from Los Angeles County
If you are reeling from the series of Executive Orders and Memoranda issued by President Trump in his first two weeks in office — and horrified by what clearly seems to be an unconstitutional, un-American and unjust ban on Muslims from seven countries that has caused outrage at home and abroad — keep reading.
When candidate Donald Trump first promised a “deportation force” during the presidential campaign, that idea sounded inhumane and disturbed many of us. But did you know it’s been tried before?
When Emilia Castañeda was 9 years old, she and her brother and father were forced to leave their home in Los Angeles on one-way train tickets to Mexico paid for by Los Angeles County — leaving behind the house her father had purchased before the Depression, most of their possessions, and even the small plot of land where Emilia’s mother was buried. Emilia wasn’t able to return home to Los Angeles for nine years. She was one of an estimated one to two million people pressured or forced to leave the United States for Mexico in the 1930s.
President Herbert Hoover’s government called the program “Mexican Repatriation,” but scholars estimate about 60 percent of the people forced to “repatriate” to Mexico were actually U.S. citizens like Emilia. Mexican Americans were rounded up indiscriminately at workplaces or handed train tickets by social workers in cities and towns across the country. Historian Francisco Balderrama estimates one-third of Los Angeles’s Mexican population was expelled between 1929 and 1944. Many Americans don’t know about this shameful chapter in our history. Those who lived through it and whose families were separated and destroyed in the process are now watching with horror as history seems poised to repeat itself.
Families such as the deported Castañedas were swept up in scapegoating that blamed them for taking away scarce jobs and taking up spaces on welfare relief rolls at the height of the Depression. The same language is back, along with similar tactics. Drafts have been circulating of potential executive orders by President Trump that would “deny admission to any alien who is likely to become a public charge.” Disqualifying immigrants in the past for being poor or arriving without a bank account or a job lined up would have radically reshaped the narrative of American history and America itself. It would certainly have kept out the immigrant ancestors of millions of current Americans of every color, ethnicity and faith. These new draft orders appear to have that goal.
Restrictions circulating in draft form would make it harder for immigrants to enter the American workforce. Existing federal law already prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining federal welfare benefits, and prohibits new permanent residents or green-card holders from qualifying for welfare and other public benefits during their first five years of residency. The draft order would target immigrant families legally receiving a certain level of public assistance like food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid after five years of residency for being a public charge, and make that a deportable offense.
In other words, being poor or falling on hard times during an economic downturn would be a crime. All this is despite the fact that studies show poor immigrants are less likely to use welfare than poor native born Americans and that immigrants are a net benefit to the American economy.
Executive orders like these, if made final, would pit poor children of immigrants against other poor children when all are America’s children and deserve an equal opportunity to reach their potential. By targeting those who legally receive public benefits and marking them for deportation, the draft order criminalizes compassion, sows fear and will rip families with mixed immigrant status apart. The draft order is based on myths and lies, rather than truth and consequences, and goes against the most basic tenets of all the major faith traditions and American values.
For more than 40 years the Children’s Defense Fund has been working with Republicans and Democrats to keep families together in the best interest of the children. In these dark days for America, we must speak out, resist using any and every nonviolent way possible and never give up until our nation can regain its bearings.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund (childrensdefense.org).