Operation Go Home
Seventy years ago, Governor Edwin Johnson set out to deport Colorado’s Mexicans and keep any more from coming in. The effort was a total failure—an exercise in finger-pointing, xenophobia, and knee-jerk immigration reform. Sound familiar?
The Mexicans are coming. That was the news on the morning of April 19th, 1936, when the Rocky Mountain News bore this headline: “Governor Declares Martial Law and Mobilizes National Guard on Southern Border to Check Aliens.” The previous day, Colorado Governor Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson had declared a state of martial law along the state’s entire 360-mile southern border. In a long-winded proclamation, he called on “all patriotic and law-abiding citizens of the state to desist and refrain from ... aiding, abetting or encouraging ... aliens, indigent persons or invaders in entering the state.” The governor dispatched some 50 National Guardsmen to the state’s six southern entry points. Their orders were specific. Colorado was officially closed to poor people and Mexicans. “We are not deporting them,” Johnson explained. “We just want to help them go back from where they came.”
So began what one newspaper called “Colorado’s ‘turn ‘em back boys’ warfare.” It was, in retrospect, an utter embarrassment, a remarkably relevant lesson in the seductive promise and potential peril of “invasion” rhetoric and its inevitable offspring, knee-jerk immigration reform. Seventy years later, the rhetoric has found another powerful voice in another Colorado politician. From his office in Washington D.C., U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo now presides over a remarkably influential reform movement, one largely established on a popular vision in which new immigrants are little more than unwelcome squatters—foot soldiers in an occupying army. It was, of course, the very vision that Governor Johnson saw so clearly in 1936. The results of that revelation stand as a cautionary tale, a history not worth repeating, although the repetition already seems to be well under way.