Two historical episodes have indelibly influenced the development of Latinx identity and sense of belonging in the United States. During the Great Depression, state and local governments, with the support of the U.S. government, repatriated approximately one million persons of Mexican ancestry, including many U.S. citizen children and immigrant parents, to Mexico. Similarly, in 1954, the U.S. government launched Operation Wetback, a military-style campaign led by a retired general that removed another one million persons of Mexican ancestry, including many U.S. citizen children, from the southwest.
History rightly condemns these episodes of anti-Mexican intolerance, which both amount to forms of ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless, we may be seeing history repeat itself with even greater harm inflicted on larger numbers of Latinx peoples. Through breathtaking and unprecedented changes to immigration enforcement, President Donald J. Trump has boldly moved to reduce immigration to, and the number of immigrants in, the United States. This Article contends that, as part and parcel of his fervent anti-immigrant agenda, President Trump is engaging in a concerted effort to remove Latinx peoples, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, from the country. Just as the previous Mexican removal campaigns did, the new Latinx repatriation accomplishes mass removals and encourages Latinx noncitizens, along with U.S. citizen children, to leave the country and self-deport, or, alternatively, to never come to the United States in the first place.
But the new Latinx repatriation differs in important respects from the old removal campaigns. First, the new system is facially neutral and colorblind, not expressly targeting Latinx peoples. That is the case despite the fact that President Trump’s words frequently—and mercilessly—attack Latinx immigrants. As a legal matter, colorblind policies pose formidable challenges to legal attacks.
Second, through President Trump’s policy efforts, the new repatriation has become institutionalized into the fabric of immigration enforcement, which differs from the ad hoc and episodic nature of the Mexican repatriation and Operation Wetback. With the targeting of Latinx immigrants embedded in the institutional structure of immigration enforcement, one can expect many more Latinx noncitizens to be removed than in previous Mexican removal campaigns.
Ultimately, only political action and congressional reform of our immigration laws can meaningfully change the racial discrimination embedded in immigration law and enforcement. To do so, we must acknowledge and directly confront the racial impacts of the operation of the immigration laws and their enforcement. Put differently, an awareness of the racialized nature of the problem is a precursor to bringing racial justice to immigration.