Mexican Americans and Repatriation

By: Robert R. McKay

Type: General Entry

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: April 8, 2020

Although a great deal of attention has been focused on Mexican immigration by scholars on both sides of the border, far less attention has been given to emigration of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the United States. Casual reference has been made in many studies to the repatriation of Mexicans from Texas, but few published studies have examined these departures in detail. The most neglected era of Mexican repatriation from the United States is before 1930. Although substantial Mexican repatriation from Texas occurred at that time, no published study has examined Mexican departures between 1836 and 1930. Mexican repatriation during the Great Depression has received more attention. During the 1930s, a single article on Mexican repatriation from Texas was published; "The Mexicans Go Home" by Edna E. Kelley appeared in the Southwest Review in 1932. Nothing more appeared until the 1980s, when four brief articles on diverse aspects of depression-era repatriation appeared. These included articles on deportation from the lower Rio Grande valley (1981), on Mexican repatriation and the Texas Cotton Acreage Control Law of 1931–32 (1983), on the repatriation of Bridgeport, Texas, coalminers (1984), and on Mexican repatriation from South Texas (1990).

Mexican repatriation from Texas is often associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s because of the massive exodus that occurred during that time. Large numbers of Mexicans were repatriated from Texas before that time, however. The departures began soon after Texas declared its independence from Mexico. Much of this cross-border migration was associated with the seasonal return of Mexican labor to Mexico each fall. However, exceptionally large numbers of Mexicans were compelled to return to Mexico periodically. Perhaps the first large-scale repatriation occurred at the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848. San Antonio, for example, was practically abandoned by Mexicans after 1848, and a number of Mexicans were repatriated under the sponsorship of the Mexican government in the late 1840s. The precise number of Mexicans returned to Mexico from Texas during this period is unknown, although they probably numbered several thousand. During the remainder of the nineteenth century, harassment against Mexicans by Anglo-Americans was occasionally so severe that many were forced to abandon their homes in Texas and return to Mexico. In the 1850s a number of Mexicans were driven from their homes in Central Texas, and in 1856 the entire Mexican population of Colorado County was reportedly ordered to leave the county. Conflict between Anglo-Americans and Mexicans in the 1870s reportedly resulted in the expulsion of Mexicans from various locations in South Texas.

The first mass Mexican repatriation movement from Texas during the twentieth century occurred in 1915 and was an indirect result of efforts by Mexicans to implement the irredentist "Plan of San Diego." Although the plan consisted of fifteen specific points, its fundamental objective was to organize the Mexican people of the Southwest and encourage them to rebel against United States authority and reconquer territories lost by Mexico to the United States in the nineteenth century. Mexican efforts to implement the plan resulted in numerous well-organized raids against the Texas Rangers, local posses, and the United States Army in the lower Rio Grande valley beginning in July. The panic that gripped Anglo-American society in the Valley after July 1915 resulted in widespread harassment and intimidation of the Mexican population of Texas. Fear among Valley residents changed to hysteria in September as the border raids increased. Anglo-American fear and vengeance proved to be effective in intimidating Mexican residents, as evidenced by the forced repatriation of thousands of Mexicans. By mid-September the repatriation movement became a massive exodus, as the roads leading to the border were congested with lengthy wagontrains of fleeing Mexicans. As many as one-half of the Mexican residents of the lower Rio Grande valley abandoned their homes in 1915, although the precise number has not been established. Following on the heels of the 1915 exodus, significant numbers of Mexicans felt compelled to abandon their Texas homes during World War I. Although the demand for labor in Texas remained strong throughout the war, many Mexicans periodically returned to Mexico because of fear of conscription into the United States military and because of widespread misunderstanding regarding the selective-service legislation adopted in May 1917. This legislation required all men, including aliens, between twenty-one and thirty-one years of age to register for military service. Mexican residents of Texas could not understand why they were required to register for military service if they were not subject to the draft; consequently, thousands left their homes in Texas for Mexico.

Nevertheless, the number of repatriates was minuscule compared to those who returned to Mexico during the Great Depression. With the deterioration of the United States economy after 1929, between 400,000 and 500,000 Mexicans and their American-born children returned to Mexico. More than half of these departed from Texas. (The term Mexican is used in this article to refer to all Mexican-heritage repatriates, although a significant number of them were Mexican Americans since they had been born in Texas. For Mexican Americans, the term repatriate is actually inaccurate, for one cannot be repatriated to a foreign country.) Depression-era Mexican repatriation from Texas began in 1929, gained momentum in 1930, and peaked in 1931. In the last quarter of 1931 repatriation reached massive proportions; the roads leading to the Texas-Mexico border became congested with returning repatriates. Mexican border towns were also crowded as thousands of returning Mexicans awaited transportation to the interior of Mexico. The number of repatriates declined in 1932 and again in 1933. During the middle years of the depression-1934 to 1938-only occasional groups of repatriates left Texas. Then in 1939 and continuing into 1940, a significant number of Mexicans were repatriated from the state by the Mexican government.

Most Texas repatriation after 1929 originated in five areas. Most of the numerous repatriates of the lower Rio Grande valley had been employed as laborers on large truck farms, although some had worked in packing plants and other agribusinesses. Repatriation from some Valley towns was so complete that few Mexicans remained. South Texas probably furnished the second-largest number of repatriates. They departed from hundreds of cotton plantations and farms where they had served as tenant farmers and laborers. Third, many rural communities and small towns throughout Central Texas furnished repatriates. These had been employed as tenant farmers and laborers on large cotton plantations and as unskilled laborers in cotton-related industries. Fourth, significant numbers of repatriates left Southwest Texas. These had been employed on the cattle and sheep ranches and as agricultural laborers in the Winter Garden region. Fifth, West Texas was a source of repatriation. From the extensive cotton farms on the South Plains to the silver mines in the Big Bend, Mexicans departed en masse.

Although most Mexicans were repatriated from rural areas of Texas, a substantial number returned to Mexico from urban centers. At least some departed from every large Texas city, but the largest number departed from San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Many urban repatriates had been employed as seasonal or permanent workers in labor-intensive industries before the depression curtailed employment. Mexicans were among the first discharged. Many urban Mexicans initially refused to abandon their homes in Texas; only after their savings were exhausted did they reluctantly return to Mexico. Urban repatriation was fueled by intense local anti-Mexican campaigns as well as by a statewide Immigration Service deportation campaign. Owners of small commercial enterprises, artisans, and professional persons were severely harmed by the depression. Their financial problems were compounded by the repatriation or deportation of thousands of customers. The effects of the depression on Mexican businesses was perhaps greatest at El Paso, where hundreds of commercial enterprises closed. Many of the owners were compelled to return to Mexico. Many repatriates returned to Mexico in good financial condition and in their own vehicles, laden with farm equipment, tools, livestock, furniture, merchandise, household goods, and other belongings. However, the possession of material belongings was not always an indication of financial wellbeing. Rural repatriates who returned with substantial belongings frequently lacked money to begin life as farmers in Mexico. Urban entrepreneurs often left with merchandise so they could reestablish their businesses, yet they usually lacked funds to do so once they reached Mexico. The repatriates' belongings were often of such little monetary value that they were unable to sell them. Repatriates who owned vehicles frequently could not pay to acquire license plates, oil, gasoline, and tires, or to make repairs.

Perhaps the most important cause of the repatriation of Mexicans from Texas in the 1930s was the deterioration of the agricultural economy of Texas, since most Texas repatriates had been employed as tenant farmers and agricultural laborers. Mexican farmworkers were devastated by declining wages after 1929. For example, the average wage paid cottonpickers decreased from $1.21 per 100 pounds of cotton picked in 1928 to forty-four cents in 1931. Mexican laborers simply could not live on such low wages. State and federal legislation designed to mitigate the impact of the depression on the poor also contributed to the repatriation of thousands of Mexicans. Two of the most important laws were the Texas Cotton Acreage Control Law of 1931–32 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which caused the displacement of large numbers of Mexicans in the early depression. In response to both laws, landlords evicted thousands of Mexican tenant farmers and agricultural laborers who subsequently returned to Mexico. Similarly, federal legislation systematically excluded alien employment on federal work-relief projects. In virtually all Texas communities Mexicans were denied work because of these federal provisions. Mexican Americans who were unable to prove their citizenship were routinely denied employment. The denial of relief work on Civil Works Administration and Work Projects Administration projects was especially devastating to Mexicans because these projects provided a major source of employment for unskilled labor during the depression. State requirements limited the employment of Mexicans on state-financed public-works projects. Employment was denied to them in state highway construction and maintenance, in construction of state buildings, and in teaching at public schools. Before 1930 construction projects had provided a major source of employment for semiskilled and unskilled Mexican labor. Many municipal and county governments adopted ordinances and resolutions that required the employment of local labor on locally financed projects. Mexicans were often denied employment because these ordinances usually had lengthy citizenship requirements that they could not meet. In addition, informal regulations were often used to deny relief to Mexicans. Local communities sometimes denied relief and employment to Mexicans who temporarily left home to engage in seasonal agricultural work because they had not been continuous residents.

Repatriation was accompanied by a federal deportation campaign that began in 1928 and intensified between 1929 and 1931. Deportation raids were carried out in both urban and rural areas. The most intense activity was conducted near the Texas-Mexico border. Few massive deportation raids were staged in Texas after 1931, although Immigration Service inspectors apprehended and deported Mexicans throughout the 1930s. Deportation raids received widespread publicity in Texas. Threat of deportation led to the exodus of thousands of Texas residents, including many Mexicans residing legally in the state. The deportation campaign began in the lower Rio Grande valley in the summer of 1928 and continued through 1931, when thousands of Mexicans were jailed and deported. The campaign was so thorough that in some small rural communities few or no Mexicans remained after 1931. By 1930 the campaign had been extended to West Texas, where activity centered on El Paso and nearby agricultural enterprises. Thousands were deported, and authorities in Ciudad Juárez had great difficulty in providing for their needs. The campaign was less intense in other areas of Texas, although raids occurred at diverse locations in South, Central, and North Texas. Reliable data are not available for the number of deportations from the various areas of the state. Efforts to implement the deportation campaign resulted in widespread violation of civil and human rights, including illegally imprisoning immigrants, deporting United States-born children, not permitting returnees to dispose of their property or to collect their wages, deporting many not legally subject to deportation because of their length of Texas residence, separating families, and deporting the infirm.

A number of institutions were involved in Mexican repatriation from Texas during the Great Depression. Perhaps the most important of these was the Mexican government, which promoted repatriation from Texas by reducing import tariffs on the repatriates' belongings and offering free transportation from the border. Reduction of import duties was an influential factor for long-term Texas residents who had accumulated many belongings, while free transportation was important to destitute repatriates. Mexican consuls in Texas encouraged repatriation as official government policy. Consuls served as the major communication link between prospective repatriates in the state and the Mexican government, and they provided information on opportunities in Mexico. Although they had limited money to aid needy repatriates, consuls often led drives to raise funds to transport repatriates from Texas. Further, they often initiated, organized, and implemented the return of repatriates. The Mexican consuls organized chapters of the Comisión Honorífica Mexicana, quasi-official bodies that served as their extensions in local communities. The comisiones provided information regarding opportunities in Mexico to prospective repatriates. They then offered organizational expertise to those who decided to return. In addition, they assisted in raising money to transport repatriates from their homes to the border. Several other Mexican government agencies assisted in repatriation. The presidents, through a series of decrees, abolished import duties on repatriates' belongings. The Ministry of Interior provided destitute repatriates with transportation from the border to their destinations in Mexico. The Mexican Migration Service expedited the passage of the repatriates through border communities and often organized drives to raise funds for them. During the late depression the Ministry of Foreign Relations recruited Texas Mexicans to colonize land in Mexico. Social organizations also played an important role. These included sociedades mutualistas, social clubs, patriotic societies, and Comités pro-Repatriados. They raised funds to return Mexicans to the border and provided other financial and material assistance.

The specific destinations of most repatriates are unknown. Apparently most returned to the towns and villages from which they had emigrated, although some went to urban centers and government-sponsored agricultural colonies. Many returned to the northern border states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Chihuahua, while a somewhat smaller number returned to Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Michoacán, Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes, in central Mexico. Large-scale efforts were made to provide returnees with land to farm. Land was made available for colonization projects by the National Irrigation Commission, other federal agencies, state agencies, and individuals. Most repatriates were resettled by the NIC, although many smaller projects were developed by an assortment of federal and state agencies. A few individual landowners were involved in resettlement, but few repatriates benefited from their schemes. Many of the repatriate colonies were located in northern Mexico, where large tracts of unsettled land were available. Resettlement projects in other areas of Mexico were often located in remote regions, usually on haciendas abandoned during the Mexican Revolution or on recently expropriated land. Much of the resettlement land was undeveloped; it required clearing and preparing before being cultivated. Most Texas repatriates who were resettled in Mexico went to one of six agricultural colonies in northern Mexico, all initiated by the National Irrigation Commission. These were the Don Martín, San Carlos, El Nogal, El Mante, Bajo Río San Juan, and Bajo Río Bravo. Other Mexican government agencies, state governments, and even some individuals established colonization projects designed to accommodate returning repatriates. Little information is available on the success or failure of most colonies, although some are known to have failed. Some repatriates settled at several projects before finding a successful one. Other colonists left the resettlement colonies for urban centers in search of jobs, while still others tried to reenter the United States. Displaced colonists often suffered severe hardships from these dislocations. In some cases they had to dispose of all their belongings in order to obtain travel funds.

Edna E. Kelley, "The Mexicans Go Home," Southwest Review 17 (April 1932). Robert R. McKay, "The Federal Deportation Campaign in Texas: Mexican Deportation from the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the Great Depression," Borderlands Journal 5 (Fall 1981). Robert R. McKay, "The Impact of the Great Depression on Immigrant Mexican Labor: Repatriation of the Bridgeport, Texas, Coal Miners," Social Science Quarterly 65 (June 1984). Robert R. McKay, "Mexican Repatriation from Texas during the Great Depression," Journal of South Texas 3 (Spring 1990). Robert R. McKay, "The Texas Cotton Acreage Control Law of 1931 and Mexican Repatriation," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 59 (1983). R. Reynolds McKay, Texas Mexican Repatriation during the Great Depression (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1982).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Labor
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert R. McKay, “Mexican Americans and Repatriation,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
April 8, 2020

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