Last Saturday, May 1, marked the first time that I participated in a march for immigration reform. I am Hispanic – a fifth-generation Texan of Mexican-American descent – and have no known family members living in Mexico. I participated in the march not only to stand in solidarity with friends who are undocumented, but also to stand up for my own rights as a U.S. citizen.

After moving to Atlanta several years ago, I became increasingly aware that anti-immigration rhetoric had become anti-Hispanic. When I read in the news that Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law Senate Bill 1070, I wasn’t completely surprised that this rhetoric existed, but I was extremely upset that this law was passed.

The Arizona law allows police to perform checks on a “reasonable suspicion” that a person might be an illegal immigrant and make arrests for not carrying ID papers.

Thinking about this new law, I couldn’t help but think about my own grandmother’s experiences as a child, living along the border in Laredo, Texas, when Mexican-Americans were picked up in raids and repatriated to Mexico.

As I stood with friends and family – Erica, Anyra, Beatrice, Johnny, Rachel and Daniel – waiting for the march to begin, we spoke to the diverse group of people around us. People came for numerous reasons. Some had family members that were undocumented. Some wanted to express their solidarity with Latinos and immigrants. Some were running for elected office. Some were undocumented. And some Chicanos, like me, felt the need to protest the Arizona law.

Weaving through downtown Dallas, I was amazed that the chants were carried and led by the children in the crowd of 25,000 to 28,000. It is estimated that more than 70 marches and vigils were held throughout the United States. There were many, many children.

Seeing so many children chanting and the emotion on their faces, I realized that they were doing everything possible to keep their families together – their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles. They chanted, “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated”), and “Escucha Obama, estamos en la lucha” (“Listen Obama, We are in the struggle”).

The children at the Dallas march inspired me. What a contrast to my U.S.-born grandmother’s account of hiding under her family’s kitchen table as a little girl whenever she heard the cry “la migra” as the border patrol performed a raid in her community.

From 1929 to approximately 1939, many families experienced the unconstitutional deportation of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans, which is called “Mexican Repatriation.”

Estimates indicate more people were affected by Mexican Repatriation than the Japanese-American relocations after World War II. Approximately 1 million to 2 million people, many born in the United States, living in Texas, California and the southwest, were affected by forced expulsion to Mexico. When Mexican-Americans moved to Mexico, many of them were unable to speak Spanish because schools in the United States punished students for speaking Spanish.

Democratic State Sen. Joe Dunn of California, who spearheaded a 2005 bill titled the “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program,” said in an interview with National Public Radio’s Melissa Block:

“Unfortunately, most of the individuals that were forcibly deported literally were done under armed guard and lock and key. There was a raid in a park in Los Angeles in February of 1931 in which they literally rounded up all the folk in that park who appeared to be of Mexican descent, put them on flatbed trucks under armed guard to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles … and the train took them to the interior of Mexico. Most of the deportations were done by force.”

The apology states, “These raids targeted persons of Mexican ancestry, with authorities and others indiscriminately characterizing these persons as ‘illegal aliens’ even when they were United States citizens or permanent legal residents.”

As a result of these raids, U.S. citizens had their personal property confiscated, sold by local authorities. The money earned from the sale of property was used as payment for their trip to Mexico.

How did this happen? The United States was experiencing the Great Depression. The Hoover administration decided that if it rid the country of illegal immigrants that jobs would then go to Americans suffering.

The reality is that the repatriation was a guise. It affected those people that looked different or did not speak English. The truth is that Mexican-Americans were “real” Americans. Many of them had never lived in Mexico or did not speak Spanish.

So I pray these words from Martin Luther King Jr. for those children, myself and others that attended the immigration marches: “God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization.”

Laura A. Cadena is a fifth-generation Tejana, a graduate of Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary. She is a member of Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta.

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