III. Historical Background
This research paper is a reminder that early research on Latinos/immigrants has not adequately informed contemporary criminal justice studies. F. Arturo Rosales (1999) contributed to the nascent body of research on Latino crime and policing and made an important contribution toward our understanding of early-1900s immigration trends. This included how Mexican immigrants responded to the U.S. criminal justice system and to crime and violence within that system as well as immigrants’ reaction to non-Latino white hostility, which emerged during the era of massive Mexican immigration in the 1890s to 1930s. In other words, early border problems, such as the smuggling of liquor, drugs, and illegal immigrants, persist in contemporary society, as do concerns about an emerging “Mexican problem”—a stereotype that assumes an innate propensity to crime in newcomers who hail from south of the Rio Grande. This stereotype is still reflected in contemporary society by politicians and the media and now targets illegal immigrants, a demographic group most likely to include persons of Mexican origin.
Regarding policing, some scholars contend that immigrant Mexicans experienced the negative presence of the police system as soon as they landed on the U.S. portion of the border. For example, drawing on historical data, including the 1931 Wickersham Commission Report on Crime and the Foreign Born, early researcher Paul Warnshuis (1931) noted that many Mexican immigrants were disproportionately arrested for disorderly conduct, a “color-less charge” used to “keep them in check,” and that “indiscriminate dragnets and brutal arrest tactics” were routine in Latino communities. These activities were undoubtedly linked to the widespread stereotype that Mexicans were inclined toward criminality. Warnshius also quoted a Chicago police sergeant stating that “You know, Indian and Negro blood does not mix very well. That is the trouble with the Mexican; he has too much Negro blood” (p. 39), a stereotype that persists to this day.
In fact, the notion that Mexican Americans were “born criminals” has not only endured, but also, as Edward Escobar (1999) documented, eventually contributed to national concern about this group, culminating in harsh measures singling out Mexican youth and young adults. By 1943, many residents of the Los Angeles barrios believed that the LAPD regularly violated the rights of Mexican Americans and that police misconduct in the Latino community was routine. In one nationally publicized incident, between June 3 and June 10, 1943, white military servicemen, civilians, and policemen attacked Mexican American youth dressed in the distinctive zoot suits (suits with wide shoulders, thigh-length jackets, and tapered pants). Many were assaulted, shaved, and left naked in the Los Angeles streets. During the riot, LAPD officers allowed servicemen to beat and strip the zoot suiters, usually arresting the Mexican American youth for disturbing the peace. Police officers arrested only a handful of servicemen but jailed more than 600 Mexican Americans. With the police watching, servicemen entered bars, theaters, dance halls, restaurants, and even private homes in search of victims. By the end of the rioting, servicemen were targeting all Mexican Americans and even some African Americans. It is clear that, for some Latinos, hostility and animosity probably defined the relationship between the Latino community and the LAPD even long after the end of World War II.
The extent of this enmity, however, was largely ignored by criminology researchers as scholars in the United States directed their attention to race and crime for several decades, ignoring Latinos. This is unfortunate, because a research foundation existed that could be built upon to inform current research, including learning more from the well-documented police mistreatment of Mexican immigrants in the early half of the century. As early as 1919, the Texas Rangers, a state police force, were involved in “murder; intimidation of citizens; threats against the lives of others; torture and brutality; flogging, horsewhipping, pistol whipping, and mistreatment of suspected persons; incompetency; and disregard for the law” (Gamio, 1971). The Texas Rangers were also routinely engaged as strike-breakers and took an active role in protecting employers’ interests. They interfered with the peaceful farm workers’ strike of 1966–1967 and arrested persons without cause.
Julian Samora (1971) wrote that the Border Patrol regularly restricted or relaxed the movement of illegal Mexican aliens according to business cycles in the agriculture industry. The relaxation of immigrant policy, border-crossing enforcement, and the employment of “illegals” were linked to ebbs and flows in the U.S. border economy. When crops needed to be harvested, the Border Patrol participated in getting workers into the field. In contrast, when crop season ended and the workers were no longer needed, the number of apprehensions and deportations spiked. Thus, the periodic roundup of “illegals” was linked to agriculture industry policy and law enforcement practices.
Samora (1971) recognized that routine Border Patrol operations were shaped by concerted efforts to thwart “invasions of illegals” crossing the U.S.–Mexican border. Periodic moral panics created concern about the “growing number of Mexican aliens,” or a financial recession directed attention to the undocumented workers. There was also anxiety about perceived high levels of crime at the border and the potential of disease-ridden “aliens” crossing the border into the United States. During periods of heightened fear, Border Patrol officers saturated entry points; in 1952, they deported more than 500,000 undocumented Mexicans when the decision was made to close the border. As we now know, over time, the Border Patrol redirected its attention elsewhere, and the number of deportees dropped throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.
Thus, racial or ethnic conflict existed for some time in the southwestern United States. Present researchers should draw on work produced by early scholars. The hostile relationship between the Chicano/Latino community and the LAPD lingered for most of the 20th century, and the long-simmering tension from the LAPD zoot suit riot in 1942 can inform current scholars concerned with urban minority group crime, in particular those interested in the causes of urban riots and how police exacerbate racial–ethnic tensions, such as in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The role that border police play in tightening up enforcement of immigration policy also is not new. The next section draws from a body of ecological research on race and crime and closes with suggestions for future studies.