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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Depression and the Struggle for Survival

Migrants, family of Mexicans, on road with tire trouble

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Mexican immigrants especially hard. Along with the job crisis and food shortages that affected all U.S. workers, Mexicans and Mexican Americans had to face an additional threat: deportation. As unemployment swept the U.S., hostility to immigrant workers grew, and the government began a program of repatriating immigrants to Mexico. Immigrants were offered free train rides to Mexico, and some went voluntarily, but many were either tricked or coerced into repatriation, and some U.S. citizens were deported simply on suspicion of being Mexican. All in all, hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants, especially farmworkers, were sent out of the country during the 1930s--many of them the same workers who had been eagerly recruited a decade before.

The farmworkers who remained struggled to survive in desperate conditions. Bank foreclosures drove small farmers from their land, and large landholders cut back on their permanent workforce. As with many Southwestern farm families, a great number of Mexican American farmers discovered they had to take on a migratory existence and traveled the highways in search of work.

El Rio - Mexican FSA Camp - 1940

Many found temporary stability in the migrant work camps established by the U.S. Farm Security Administration, or FSA. The FSA camps provided housing, food, and medicine for migrant farm families, as well as protection from criminal elements that often took advantage of vulnerable migrants. The FSA set up several camps specifically for Mexican Americans in an attempt to create safe havens from violent attacks.

The camps also provided an unexpected benefit. In bringing together so many individual farm families, they increased ties within the community. Many residents began organizing their fellow workers around labor issues, and helped pave the way for the farm labor movements that emerged later in the century. This interview with a leader of the FSA camp in El Rio, California describes some of the day-to-day issues that the camp residents dealt with.

Two Mexican workers

Although farming was an important source of employment for Mexican immigrants, by the end of the 1930s Mexican Americans were established throughout the American workforce. Mexican immigrants and their descendants could be found in most of the industries of the Southwest, including ranching and mining. America's growing rail network was particularly important for Mexican immigrants. The railroad industry had long turned to immigrants from Mexico as a source of low-cost labor. In return, Mexican workers found that the railways offered not only employment, but also mobility. They often used this relatively inexpensive form of travel to move their families further into the North and East of the U.S., and into a more urban way of life.