How did American lawmakers come to sterilize Mexican-Americans? 

In his chilling new book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, scholar Steve Ross chronicles how Hitler and American Nazis planned to take over the United States, using Los Angeles as their stronghold. Their plot included machine-gunning Jews on the streets and publicly hanging prominent entertainment-industry figures such as Al Jolson and Samuel Goldwyn.

Surprising? Not so much.

The notion that racist Nazi ideologies gained a foothold in the United States is more than plausible given the early-20th-century popularity here of eugenics, the science of improving the human population by controlled breeding. Such beliefs weren’t just cocktail-party chatter among a handful of extremists; they were codified into laws and practices that, in the Southwest especially, targeted people of Mexican origin.

In 1907, California began mandating forced sterilization of those men and women deemed “mentally inferior” or otherwise “unfit to propagate.” By 1909, a sterilization law was in effect. And by 1964, the state had sterilized 20,000 people—mostly poor women, African Americans and immigrants. Women and men of Mexican descent were sterilized at disproportionate rates.

Eugenics shaped immigration policy, too. As Mexicans continued crossing the border to provide the cheap labor for America’s rapidly expanding industrial agriculture, critics viewed them as an even greater threat to national “purity” than their European counterparts, who were subject to strict quotas under the Immigration Act of 1924. Restrictionist politicians invoked the language of racial superiority as they strove to extend quotas to immigrants from south of the border. Texas Representative John C. Box, for example, argued against Mexican immigration this way: “For the most part Mexicans are Indians, and very seldom become naturalized. They know little of sanitation, are very low mentally and are generally unhealthy.”

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Cover of Physical Culture Magazine, June 1934, posing the question 'Shall We Breed or Sterilize Defectives?' The same line of thinking was applied by some U.S. lawmakers to poor people of color, and Mexican immigrants in particular, resulting in their forced sterilization.
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Cover of Physical Culture Magazine, June 1934, posing the question ‘Shall We Breed or Sterilize Defectives?’ The same line of thinking was applied by some U.S. lawmakers to poor people of color, and Mexican immigrants in particular, resulting in their forced sterilization. 

Opponents of open Mexican immigration, including self-described eugenicists, wrote numerous articles supporting restrictive immigration. In these publications, they described Mexicans as racially unfit, with titles such as “The Menace of Mexican Immigration.” While some of these articles were published in extremist journals, others made their way into mainstream publications like The Saturday Evening Post, which claimed a circulation of more than 2 million.

Employers who relied on the labor of Mexican workers fought to preserve immigration from Mexico—and won. Yet even in supposedly pro-immigrant circles, the logic of eugenics still held sway. In cities like Los Angeles and El Paso, where many Mexican immigrants settled, health officials targeted Mexican women and children with Americanization programs aiming to cure them of the “ills” that made them obstacles to national progress. Mothers who brought their children to neighborhood clinics received parenting lessons while doctors examined the children. These programs’ underlying message: Without expert guidance, Mexican women lacked the skills to be capable mothers.

READ MORE: The U.S. Deported a Million of Its Own Citizens During the Great Depression

The scientific racialization seen in the 1920s only intensified with the Great Depression, as everyday citizens and government officials alike began using Mexican immigrants as scapegoats for economic and social ills. Efforts to present Mexicans as Americanize-able, given the proper education by health experts, were abandoned. Instead, several states and counties embarked on a repatriation campaign that deported an estimated 1 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

In the course of this purge, Mexican women and children came to symbolize the perils of a more open immigration policy—with the argument shaped along eugenicist lines. Until the mid-20s, the growth of the Mexican population in the United States had been attributed mainly to immigration of men looking for work. But with the increased arrival of Mexican women, restrictionists began to focus not only on the economic threat posed to American workers, but also on birth rates. They argued that Mexican immigrants, being “excessive breeders,” would have too many children who would proceed to drain U.S. resources.

Migratory Mexican field worker's home in Imperial Valley, California. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, 1938
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Migratory Mexican field worker’s home in Imperial Valley, California. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, 1938. 

The belief that Mexican women were unusually “fecund” fueled anxieties over the potential for “race suicide,” in which the middle- and upper-class white population would be overwhelmed by nonwhites. In Congressional hearings in 1926 over immigration restriction, Louisiana Congressman Riley Wilson argued that open immigration policies would be disastrous to the nation, because even if Mexicans returned to their home country, “they have children, and a child born in California is an American citizen.”

The defeat of Nazi Germany didn’t end the influence of eugenics on U.S. public-health practices. Nor did the civil-rights movement, which sought to end the country’s long history of racial discrimination. In 1975, 10 working-class Mexican immigrant women filed a class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles County General Hospital, seeking redress for having been sterilized without their consent. Doctors and nurses had coerced them, they argued, repeatedly pressuring them while they were in extreme pain or sedated. One woman had not signed any document consenting to the procedure. Some had been told—erroneously—that the operation was reversible. One plaintiff was told to have the operation “because her children were a burden on the government.”

Karen Benker, a medical student at the time, testified against the doctors involved. She described a hospital culture in which Mexican patients were viewed as irresponsible breeders. She testified that the lead defendant, Dr. Edward Quilligan, the head of OB/GYN at County General, maintained that “poor minority women in L.A. County were having too many babies, that it was a strain on society; and that it was good that they be sterilized.” Ultimately, the judge ruled that the women’s sterilization was the result of “cultural misunderstanding” rather than wrongdoing on the part of the doctors.

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The notion that Mexicans overburden the government, particularly in health, education and welfare, continued to drive legislation in the 1990s. One of the most notorious examples, California’s Proposition 187, denied public-health services, social services and public education to undocumented immigrants. It also mandated that all public employees—including teachers and health-care providers—report anyone seeking public services whom they believed might be undocumented. The proposition passed by an overwhelming majority in 1994, though implementation was halted by the courts.

The wording of Proposition 187 encompassed all undocumented immigrants, but within California’s political and cultural climate, it was understood that Mexicans were the primary target. Even more, according to Sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, the measure’s emphasis on restricting education and prenatal and maternity care targeted Mexican women and children—tacitly suggesting families represented a greater threat than sojourning Mexican men because they settled in the U.S. and consumed resources that rightfully belonged to “better” residents. 

There is a straight line between this reasoning and the forced-sterilization cases at County General Hospital 20 years earlier, and the 20,000 people sterilized by the state of California in the name of the “betterment of humanity.”