History Repeats Itself, Mass Deportations are Nothing New! (Bisbee Deportation)

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A Brief History

On July 12, 1917, the local sheriff deputized 2000 men as a posse to do the dirty work for the local mining company, called Phelps Dodge Corporation, and forcibly and illegally “deported” 1300 people to New Mexico.  The deported people were striking miners and their supporters, most of which were Mexican Americans.  Echoes of this shameful event are evident today when we are on the precipice of another announced mass round up and deportation of undocumented (i.e., “illegal”) Mexicans from the United States, to be conducted legally by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) at the direction of President Trump, the operation set to commence on Sunday, July 14, 2019.

Digging Deeper

Today the subject of immigration to the United States, especially illegal entry to the country through Mexico by Mexicans and other Latin Americans, as well as mass quantities of Latino’s seeking political asylum in the US as a way to avoid the cumbersome normal immigration procedure has become a political hot potato, dividing Americans on a highly emotional level.  (In the past, we have discussed on our site other times the United States has experienced anti-immigrant situations.)

To contain the so-called “Yellow Peril”, the Immigration Act of 1917 established the “Asiatic barred zone” (shown in green), from which the U.S. admitted no immigrants.  Map by Dyfsunctional (talk).

In the Bisbee, Arizona event, the action taken was without any legal justification, although no person or entity was ever prosecuted for what amounted to kidnapping.  The labor situation at the mines was aggravated by the union movement that was sweeping over the working world, pitting owners against workers seeking to join and implement union representation.  The mining company and local authorities used the justification that such union busting action was needed to support national security at a time when World War I was raging.  The deported people were transported about 200 miles away and warned to not come back to Bisbee.  Those victims were provided little or no food and water on the journey to Tres Hermanas, New Mexico via railroad cattle cars.  The workers had little money or provisions and were unceremoniously dumped into a desert environment.  Lingering bitterness over a 1915-1916 strike had hardened feelings between the mine owners and European American supervisors and the mostly Mexican workers.

Oddly enough, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) was not particularly supportive of the workers at Phelps Dodge, though the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were happy to take up the workers’ cause and recruit new union members.  When the IWW called for a strike at the Phelps Dodge and other Bisbee mines, about 3000 workers walked off the job in support of the strike.

Striking miners and others rounded up by the armed posse on July 12, 1917, sit in the bleachers in Warren Ballpark. Armed members of the posse patrol the infield.  Photograph scan created by Arizona Historical Society; AHS location information: Pictures-Places-Bisbee-Bisbee Deportation, #43179.  Original photographer and publisher not known.

The governor of Arizona refused to send the State Militia to support the aggrieved companies, causing the heartless robber barons (mine owners) to employ their own brand of legal (or actually illegal) method of coping with the labor dispute.    The governor of Arizona and President Wilson investigated the incident once news of the action had finally reached outside of the immediate area, as Phelps Dodge and local authorities had clamped down on communications out of the area to hide their actions.  The Bisbee Deportation followed an earlier “deportation” on July 5, 1917, in Jerome, Arizona (known as the Jerome Deportation), a smaller scale virtual rehearsal for the larger Bisbee Deportation.  The Jerome Deportation involved only about 250 “deputies” in the anti-labor posse which rounded up and “deported” 60 workers suspected of being union agitators.

One of the interesting, or perhaps infamous, aspects of the Bisbee Deportation was the use of a belt fed machine gun by the sheriff to ensure compliance by the strikers that were being rounded up.  When the strikers were rounded up, they were given the option of returning to work, but IWW members and strike organizers/agitators were not allowed any choice other than to be carted out of town.  About 700 workers decided to go back to work.  Additional machine guns were used to oversee the train transport of the deportees.  Phelps Dodge and the posse attempted to drop off the deportees in Columbus, New Mexico, but local authorities refused to allow the men to disembark from the train.  The train traveled an additional 20 miles down the tracks to Tres Hermanas and discharged the broke and now indigent workers.

Striking miners and others being deported from Bisbee on the morning of July 12, 1917.  The men are boarding the cattle cars provided by the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad.  Original photographer and publisher not known.

Tres Hermanas authorities ordered the displaced miners and their supporters be fed, watered, and cared for, and the governor of New Mexico was contacted for help with the refugee situation.  Tents that had been originally provided for Mexican refugees from the Pancho Villa battles with Mexican authorities were used to house the workers for the next 2 months until the men eventually dispersed.

Meanwhile, Bisbee was being run almost as if martial law had been declared, with the sheriff and company executives ruthlessly rooting out union supporters and prosecuting protestors in sham court proceedings.  In 1918, US Federal authorities had 21 Phelps Dodge employees and various Bisbee officials and law enforcement officers arrested and charged with Federal crimes in conjunction with the Bisbee Deportations and subsequent actions.  The case ended up in the US Supreme Court, United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281 (1920), where the court ruled 8-1 in favor of the defendants, the ruling basically saying that the US Department of Justice did not have the standing to protect the rights of the deportees.  The Supreme Court confirmed the sovereignty of the States in matters concerning labor disputes in this case, the atmosphere of the country at the time being severely strained by the ongoing World War and the rise of unionists, communists, and anarchists.  In fact, sentiment against the disgruntled workers nearly resulted in the enactment of laws allowing such labor unrest to result in the strikers being imprisoned for “sedition.”  The State of Arizona chose not to pursue any charges against any of the Bisbee authorities or company men.

Deportation of striking miners from Bisbee, Arizona, on July 12, 1917. Striking miners and others are marched from Warren Ballpark along railroad tracks toward cattle cars belonging to the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. Photograph scan created by Arizona Historical Society; AHS location information: Pictures-Places-Bisbee-Bisbee Deportation, #43171. Original photographer and publisher not known.

The Bisbee and Jerome deportations were vigilante actions rather than official government deportations such as those used to deport immigrants that violated terms of immigration law or presented a perceived threat to the safety and good order of the public.  After World War I, deportations of political undesirables (anarchists and communists) was enthusiastically pursued, and during the Great Depression as many as 2 million Mexican immigrants to the United States were sent back to Mexico.  Sadly, during World War II many Mexican workers had been recruited to come to the US to work for the war effort, but were illegally deported in 1954, about a million Mexican immigrants including several hundred that had become US citizens!  This mass deportation was called (we are not making this up!) “Operation Wetback.”

Today (2019), immigration, both legal and illegal, as well as the application by potential immigrants for political asylum have become hotly debated topics among Americans and American politicians, most notably on the Mexican-American border and also regarding Muslim immigrants and refugees coming to the US.  Just as the United States once agonized over Asian immigration, Jewish refugees fleeing pre-World War II Europe, and other ethnic and religious immigration, the subject of immigration to this nation of immigrants remains an unsettled issue.  Will the subject ever lose its contentious nature?  Probably not, we are sad to say.

Trump examines border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa, California.  This file is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. 

Question for Students (and others):  Were you aware of previous immigration battles and deportations prior to recent years?  Let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dillard, Gary. Embree Not Guilty of IWW Offenses in Bisbee. Amazon Digital Services, 2015.

Dillard, Gary. The Bisbee Deportation. Frontera House Press, 2003.

Unknown Binding. The great Bisbee IWW deportation of July 12, 1917: A complication of the events that took place from newspapers, magazines, photographs, official records and the accounts of some of the participants. Signature Press, 1996.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of the deportation of striking miners from Bisbee, Arizona, on July 12, 1917, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.