When Colorado Closed the Door on the Poor
Long before the chants of "build the wall" and attacks on the humanity of immigrants, Colorado experienced its own crisis of conscience. More to the point, it not only intensified its animosity towards Mexican migrants, but also went so far as to dehumanize fellow Americans as "aliens."
Most species will turn on their own as resources become more limited. Humanity is no different and perhaps nothing has underscored that fact as well as the Great Depression.
By 1936, the United States was well into phase two of the New Deal. Manufacturing jobs were nearly up to their pre-1929 crash levels, and the Works Progress Administration was continuing to put people back to work on public infrastructure projects.
Unfortunately, the Dust Bowl was also in full swing, and farm jobs were drying up like prairie grass. Parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas were particularly affected. As such, workers and their families began migrating to look for jobs in other regions. One draw in Colorado, besides the numerous WPA projects, was the Northern Colorado sugar beet industry that managed to stay clear of the worst dust storms.
At the time, the Democratic governor of Colorado was Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson. He was a staunch ally of members of the America First movement and opposed the Roosevelt Administration and the New Deal.
It is not surprising, then, that Governor Johnson's isolationist and xenophobic tendencies manifested at the state level as well as the national. It was clear that by March 1936 he was threatening martial law. Johnson argued that only residents of Colorado had the right to the state's available jobs.
On Saturday, April 18, 1936, Governor Johnson made an official declaration of martial law. He ordered the Colorado National Guard to patrol the state's entire 360-mile southern border. It did not go unnoticed that this coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre. According to the Denver Post, while the National Guard had been called out during various labor disputes and floods, this was the first time in at least 15 years that a governor had made a formal declaration of martial law.
All cars and trains on major arteries into the state were to be stopped and searched. Destitute Americans seeking only to pass through to jobs in Wyoming and Montana were to be sent back. The governor even worked to enlist the support of Colorado citizenry to observe and report on any who appeared to be coming into the state looking for work. He said,
This policy must end and in my proclamation I am asking all of our citizens to desist from any aid to such enterprises of importing outside labor and to co-operate with the military and the police authorities to end it. Jobs in this state are for our citizens and I propose to see that they are not filled by outsiders if I have to invoke the full military strength of the state to do so.
Governor Johnson invoked the evergreen image of a "threatened invasion of alien and indigent labor." At the same time, he empowered the military to determine if those crossing the border did so with obvious financial means. Americans who were verified to be wealthy enough for purposes of commerce or tourism were to be allowed in.
Within days, financial interests in New Mexico began organizing against the ban. Merchants and buyers within the Commercial Club passed a resolution condemning Johnson's actions and proposed a boycott of Colorado businesses. At the same time, New Mexico senators Dennis Chavez and Carl Hatch loudly denounced the blockade as unconstitutional. They cited Article IV, Section II of U.S. Constitution, which states,
The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.
Within a mere 10 days, Johnson rescinded his order of martial law, citing the deteriorating relationship between Colorado and New Mexico. While he promoted the desire to be a good neighbor to states along the Colorado border, he stood by his goal of stopping the flow of "aliens" and was silent on the Constitutional issues aroused by his actions.
As is often the case, it was the governor's unstated motivations for ending this experiment that were, perhaps, most intriguing. According to the Denver Post, Colorado sugar beet producers needed thousands of seasonal laborers for fieldwork and were experiencing difficulties recruiting from within the state.
Such negative consequences would continue to arise and be accompanied by feigned surprise each time such xenophobia took root along internal or national borders—perhaps most infamously under Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback." Similar sentiments always carry familiar refrains of the "other" seeking to steal what some perceive as theirs.
Yet, Americans have shown a tendency to embrace, as President Lincoln said, the "better angels of our nature given time." Particularly aggressive actions, such as those seen in 1930s Colorado, seem to inspire an aggressive discussion and rethinking of policies. Whether the issue is the Irish, Italians, Latinos, "Okies" or others, common ground is found with the passage of time.
Such are the lessons of our complex—but often cyclical—history.
Great article. Food for thought in our current political climate. Thank you so much.
Thanks so much for the kind words. History never ceases to inform the future.
Alex, I know this won't fit your politically correct narrative, but "Alien" is a legal term for non-citizen. It has nothing to do with dehumanizing anyone. It's the same for Swedish non-citizens as it is for Mexican non-citizens.
Thank you for your thoughts, Dina. What was perhaps most surprising about this instance was that "alien" was being applied not only to non-citizens but also to citizens from other US states. These "Okies" and Texans were not "aliens" by any definition but were treated as though they were, effectively stripping them of their American citizenship. Hopefully this clarifies the article.
"Alien" as defined by the online Oxford English Dictionary, definition # 2. Of a foreign nature or character; strange, unfamiliar, different. Also: hostile, repugnant. The term has been weaponized by the current U.S. administration to define those non-citizens as hostile and repugnant.. Let's see, then, all white, Europeans, who came to this country, from 1607 onward, would be "illegal aliens" too the native population?
Very interesting. I did not know that part of Colorado history. Thanks so much for this article.
Thank you so much. We appreciate you taking the time to check out our stories as we stumble into the lesser known corners of our history.
Great way to twist history to your PC inclinations. Try putting your boots on the ground in the 1930's in Colorado.
I'm not clear on what part of the story you think I got wrong, but thanks for your interest in this important story.
Thank you for this informative article. I am inspired to use this information in teaching Colorado history at the elementary level by modifying Zinn Education Project's "Deportation on Trial" simulation to include Gov. Johnson as one of the indicted for the 1929-1939 period of deportation. https://www.zinnedproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Deportation-on-Trial.4.pdf. This is part of a larger 4th grade unit I'm developing called "Colorado’s Sugar Beet Boom; German-Russian and Mexican Farmers Struggle for Social Mobility Between 1900 and 1939.". Thanks again for this critical content!
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