For ten days in 1936, Colorado governor Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson declared martial law in the state, which allowed him to close Colorado’s southern border to migrant workers from nearby states and Mexico. Amid record unemployment during the Great Depression, Johnson closed the border because he feared an “invasion” of “alien and indigent persons” who would take scarce jobs from white Coloradans.
For the next week and a half, immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America, and much of the state’s Latino population, experienced acute anxiety and distress as the National Guard and white vigilantes disproportionately targeted them. However, Johnson was eventually forced to rescind the order under pressure from Colorado businesses, the federal government, and neighboring states, especially New Mexico. Historically, Colorado’s 1936 border closure fits into a long pattern of states challenging the federal government in order to enforce white supremacy. It also remains a remarkable event, however, because few other states so openly defied the federal government’s authority on immigration in the twentieth century.
For much of the country, the 1930s were a time of large-scale destitution, displacement, and migration—all of which produced significant anxiety and xenophobia in the public. The stock market crash of 1929 halted business growth nationwide and led to widespread unemployment, and in 1934 agriculture was devastated when severe drought combined with loose, over-plowed soil on the Great Plains to create massive dust storms. The Dust Bowl came in waves during the decade, destroying farms and towns and creating thousands of refugees who sought safety and work elsewhere. In 1936 the Los Angeles Police Department formed its own vigilante border patrol in California and turned away hundreds of these refugees, reflecting the rampant xenophobia of the times.
Meanwhile, Northern Colorado’s sugar beet industry did not experience the worst of the Dust Bowl conditions that rocked surrounding states, so workers from Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas came to Colorado to seek jobs. Many of these job seekers were of Mexican descent and sought steady employment as betabeleros, or beet field workers. These migrant workers bolstered the Mexican population of the state, which stood at 5.6 percent in 1930.
At the same time, many white Coloradans held the same anti-Mexican and xenophobic sentiments on display in California and elsewhere during the Depression. Beginning in 1929, many states instituted a system of “Mexican repatriation.” Rooted in the belief that Mexicans and other migrants took scarce jobs away from white Americans and threatened their culture, these attitudes led the federal government to indiscriminately arrest and deport as many as 1.8 million Mexican immigrants—many of them American citizens—between 1929 and 1936. Arguments that migrant workers of color threaten white Americans’ economic opportunity and cultural dominance are still made today.
The Great Depression affected American politics just as profoundly as American social and economic life. The policies of the New Deal created a split in the Democratic Party as President Franklin Roosevelt’s new focus on working-class Americans, and his preference for wielding federal authority to relieve the pains of the Depression, alienated many white, middle-class Americans who believed in individualism and state sovereignty.
Colorado governor Ed Johnson was a strong advocate of state sovereignty, and, therefore, despite sharing a party with President Roosevelt, he opposed the New Deal. The governor also had an ongoing feud with Paul D. Shriver, the head of Colorado’s federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). Shriver arrived in Colorado in June 1935 to oversee the development of federal projects that were expected to bring between $40 and $50 million into the state. Although he was happy to ask for and receive federal cash, Johnson made Shriver’s job difficult, alleging the WPA rolls were filled with supporters of a political rival. The two officials also clashed over labor, where Johnson disagreed with the WPA’s allowance of “aliens” on its relief rolls. Johnson’s belief that Mexican immigrants stole relief jobs from white Americans echoed that of a sizable chunk of the state’s white population and drove his efforts to rid the state of immigrants.
In the spring of 1935, Johnson proposed a plan to round up, detain, and deport some 40,000 “Mexican aliens” so that “Americans get relief jobs instead.” This plan was scuttled, however, because it would illegally usurp the federal government’s immigration authority. In late summer 1935, Johnson proposed the idea of martial law—which was legal under the state’s constitutionally protected power to police—and indicated he would use it to maintain state control over the borders. One of Johnson’s major concerns was that some Colorado businesses, especially the Great Western Sugar Company, would attempt to bring in Mexican workers as a source of cheap labor. Shriver maintained that the federal government did not allow for the purging of Mexican laborers from relief rolls and that workers could not be deported unless they had committed a crime.
On April 18, 1936—right in the middle of sugar-beet-planting season, and just as workers began to enter the state to take up jobs in the beet fields—Governor Johnson declared martial law in Colorado. He instructed the Colorado National Guard to patrol the state’s southern border and stop all vehicles and persons trying to cross. Those attempting to enter the state to find work were to be turned away. Even workers trying to travel through to jobs in Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska were told to make their way around the state. Those who could demonstrate means or show that they were coming to the state for business or tourism were allowed to enter. Defending his actions, Johnson stated, “The entering of alien and indigent persons into this state in such large numbers constitutes an invasion that will create, encourage and cause a condition of lawlessness.”
While Johnson’s declaration did not name a specific ethnic group, it was widely understood that the law was targeting people of Mexican descent. Thus, enforcement of the law was expressly racist. In California, the LAPD may have held racist views, but in 1936 it tried to keep out all poor migrants, not just Mexicans. In Colorado, however, authorities focused their energy and resources solely on the border with New Mexico, which had a much larger nonwhite population. Colorado authorities rarely stopped anyone coming from Kansas or Oklahoma—until they got word that nonwhites were traveling there to get around the southern border blockade.
Reaction to martial law varied. Many Coloradans believed the move to be too extreme, but others, including a sizable portion of the state’s native Hispano population, applauded the bold crackdown on migrant workers. Business owners and farmers were rankled at the move to stifle the flow of cheap labor into the state. In response to Johnson’s actions, William A. Petrikin, chairman of the Great Western Sugar Company, stated, “We will employ all the beet labor in Colorado and after that, well, if the governor doesn’t want beets grown in Colorado, that’s that.” Chairman Petrikin’s statement suggested moving the company to more tolerant areas if the governor did not change his policies toward migrant labor.
Citing reports that representatives from the sugar and railroad industries were in neighboring states, attempting to recruit cheap labor, Johnson directed the Colorado National Guard to pay special attention to any groups of “aliens” they might encounter. Adjutant General Neil Kimball, commanding officer along the border, said the Guard was primarily focused on the “wholesale importations” of Mexicans and other workers via railroads. Railroad companies operating in Colorado agreed to submit to searches of both passenger and freight trains, as the troops would also be looking to remove transients. The National Guard stopped and boarded passenger trains (except for first-class cars) to search for laborers, and Kimball patrolled the border from the air.
Kimball oversaw many of the inspections and reported to Governor Johnson on the details of the operation. His updates from the border were even published in newspapers such as the Colorado Transcript, which included an update on the state of the border closing in Kimball’s regular political feature, “Capitol Comment.”
Johnson’s decision to close the border found support from those Coloradans for whom Mexican immigration was already a source of anger. Vigilante committees—many of which had formed in the early Great Depression years and embraced the rising nationalist sentiment throughout the country—began placing large signs throughout the border areas that proclaimed, “Warning to all Mexican and all other aliens to leave the state of Colorado, by order of Colorado state vigilantes.” Throughout the period of martial law, Latino workers across the state found themselves especially vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and detention.
Colorado businesses largely opposed the border closure because they relied heavily on the itinerant labor that came and went with planting and harvest seasons. Johnson’s motivation for closing state borders stemmed from his desire to keep migrant workers from Mexico out so those jobs would remain open to Coloradans during the Great Depression. However, white Coloradans continued to eschew employment in the sugar beet fields because of the intensity of the labor and the paltry wages. They found better work, for instance, in WPA projects, which would employ some 40,000 Coloradans by the end of 1936. The Colorado Bureau of Labor reported that 1,300 jobs remained unfilled during the closure, even as the National Guard turned away more than 300 migrant workers.
Business interests in New Mexico also protested the move by Johnson. The Commercial Club in the state proposed a boycott of goods from Colorado. The Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Party also lent their voices to protest the blockade. New Mexico senators Dennis Chavez and Carl Hatch asserted that the closure was unconstitutional. Chaves and Hatch cited Article IV, Section II of the Constitution, which states, “The Citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states.”
Under financial pressure from the federal government, neighboring states, and businesses in Colorado, Johnson was forced to rescind the order after just ten days, so the lawsuit did not move forward. To save face, Johnson stated that the problem of cheap foreign labor would require a federal solution—a statement that directly contradicted both his rationale for closing the border and many of his ideas on state sovereignty.
At various times in the history of the United States, xenophobic and isolationist fears have driven attempts to deny entry or deport those deemed undesirable. Throughout the twentieth century, states tended to ignore or challenge federal authority when they believed white supremacy was threatened by new classes of voters, desegregation, or immigration.
The closing of the Colorado border in 1936 followed the same blueprint through its defiance of federal power in order to selectively target people based on race. Modern calls for building a wall along the US-Mexico border also fit this general pattern. Yet, the desire for cheap labor and the unconstitutionality of these laws tend to spell their demise. This was the case in 1936, and the situation reflects the tension in a white supremacist society between disdain for nonwhite people and the need for cheap (often nonwhite) labor. In 1936 the need for that labor—for bodies that could be exploited to grow an economy that disproportionately benefitted white people—prevailed over nativist concern and ended Johnson’s border closure.
Meanwhile, although racism against Mexican immigrants never went away, continued economic recovery through Roosevelt’s New Deal policies reduced the sentiments that fueled support for exclusionist policies like Johnson’s. Migrant labor continued to be a critical part of the sugar beet industry in Colorado for decades, at times bolstered by federal policy, such as the Bracero Program in the 1940s. Without the generations of labor that Governor Johnson attempted to block in 1936, Colorado’s relative economic prosperity in the decades to come would have been impossible. Today’s rhetoric that paints Mexican immigrants as criminals or job-snatchers, as opposed to their actual roles as providers of food and essential services to millions of Americans, echoes Ed Johnson, who was willing to sabotage his own state’s economy so that white residents could feel superior in a time of acute stress.