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Crystal City… The anti-Santa Rosa

26 January 2015

I posted the other day about Santa Rosa, the Mexican refuge for Polish exiles during the Second World War… or, as it’s styled here, “La guerra contra nazi-fascismo”.  Despite a serious fascist threat in Mexico (besides Nazi and Falangist influence in the new PAN party that came out of the Cristero War, and openly fascist groups like the Gold Shirts, in 1937 Secretary of Agriculture Saturnino Cedello led a armed rebellion financed largely by Nazi Germany), it is to Mexico’s credit that it did not use the war or the very real fascist threat as an excuse to “punish” successful emigrants from enemy countries, as did several other Latin American nations.

As Jane Jarboe Russell writes in The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II (Simon and Schuster, 2015):

In October 1941, the State Department reached secret agreements with Panama, Peru, Guatemala and 13 other countries in Latin America for the arrest and deportation of Axis nationals. As early as July 1941, newspapers in Latin American countries published “La Lista Negra” – the black list – of Axis nationals. Hours after Roosevelt declared war on December 8, Guatemala froze the assets of Japanese, Germans and Italians and restricted travel. Costa Rica ordered all Japanese interned. Police in practically every Latin American country, except Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, arrested fathers first, held them in jail and deported them to the United States on American troop ships. Their families were then arrested and deported as well. The U.S. justification for the arrests was to protect national security.

Once the Latin Americans set foot on American soil in ports in New Orleans or California, the INS was in charge. Officers immediately arrested them for “illegal entry.” They were de-loused with strong showers, sprayed with DDT and loaded onto trains bound for internment camps. “The rationale for this international form of kidnapping was that by immobilizing influential German and Japanese nationals who might aid and abet the Axis war effort in the Latin-American countries where they lived, the United States was preventing the spread of Nazism throughout the hemisphere and thereby strengthening its own security,” wrote Geraldo Mangione, who worked for Harrison at the INS. According to Mangione, many in the INS, including himself, opposed the policy of arresting Latin Americans. One of the officers in charge of an INS camp told Mangione: “Only in wartime could we get away with such fancy skullduggery.”

Amazingly, the Crystal City detention camp was in operation until 1948… four years after the end of the war*.  A 1945 propaganda film, produced by the U.S. Department of Justice, shows the camp as “humane”… and I suppose in comparison to Auschwitz they were, and maybe even in comparison to today’s “detention centers” for so-called “illegal aliens” (or even Guantanamo) … but remember, many of these detainees were not even, except by the wildest possible stretch of the term, “illegal entrants” into the United States, but people forcibly exiled from their home countries in the Americas. 


* I sent Jane Jarboe Russell a query about this, via her facebook page.  She responded that some deportations were “delayed” and that several inmates fought their deportations in court, but remained in custody during their court cases. 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. roberb7 permalink
    26 January 2015 4:27 pm

    The motive for keeping Crystal City open until 1948 may have been less than sinister. It’s hard to imagine just how many people were dislocated during WW II, and even with all available forms of transportation running at capacity, it took two years for all military personnel and refugees to get home. So, the Latinos at Crystal City may have been kept there because there was no space available on ships to take them back to Argentina or wherever.

    Have to say that detaining people as illegal immigrants, when it was the US that brought them there in the first place, was a dirty trick.

    • 26 January 2015 8:24 pm

      No… many of the detainees were Central American Germans… Germans having invested heavily in the coffee business. As Guatemala did during WWI (Guatemala being the only Latin American nation to join that fray), it was an excuse to seize the plantations for the local elites. The Somoza clan took over most Nicaraguan coffee plantations and left the previous owners destitute…. much as Japanese-Americans who lost their farms were.

  2. 10 February 2015 2:45 am

    Very good post. I absolutely love this site. Keep it up!

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