Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Political Expatriates in Mexico

The 1950's were a particularly dark period in American history.  Lives, careers, and families were destroyed in the search for the enemy within (Communists and fellow travelers).  But not all Americans sat at home waiting to be denounced or for the subpoena or letter informing them that they had lost their livelihoods. Some fled and many went south to America's near abroad, Mexico.

Diana Anhalt has written a fascinating portrait of these political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." in her book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico.  She was well placed to write their history;  she was a young girl living in New York when her parents, Mike and Belle Zykofsky,  uprooted the family and slipped out of the United States in 1950.

The FBI (and it was the FBI not the CIA that kept them under surveillance in Mexico) called them the American Communist Group in Mexico (ACGM), "A loosely knit organization of a prominently social nature of persons who are present and/or past members of the Communist Party of the United States and their friends and associates who share a common sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union."

Anhalt is a bit more precise in her description.  They were "former labor leaders, 'undesirable' U.S. resident aliens, the Abraham Lincoln vets, Party organizers, Hollywood activists, and the unfriendly witnesses at Congressional and State hearings.  Some were members or former members of the Communist Party; others were not."

Why did they leave?  The answer seems obvious and yet, as Anhalt points out, many left before they became subjects of interest (it took the FBI four years to discover that her parents had left the country) and in many of her interviews with American expatriates they declined to cite homeland politics as their reason for leaving the United States.  Though the harassment was highly unpleasant and some went to jail or lost their jobs, the repression never turned deadly (there were no camps or executions).  Resident aliens had the least amount of protection - the tool of choice used against them was the threat of jail and deportation (Alien Registration Act of 1940).  There was a general climate of fear and anyone associated with the Party or leftist groups felt vulnerable and decided to get out while they could:

 "Therefore, the opposition, people like my parents, afraid they might lose their jobs or be harassed or detained for having associated with suspect organizations or individuals, fled to Mexico because the deteriorating political climate at home, like the signal lights at a railroad crossing, was a sign of danger."

Some stayed for a short time and returned to the U.S., others used Mexico as a stepping stone to further migration and a third country.  Others settled in and here Amhalt's book really shines because she recounts what happened to these sojourners in the years they spent just south of the U.S. border. Like many migrants most had no intention of living there permanently, "We didn't come down to stay.  We came down to cool off."  Their strategy was to wait out the witch hunts, watch the American political scene closely and to return when/if things got better.  For some that day never came and they died in exile.

This attitude  was not exactly conducive to integration but such is the power of  host country culture that most learned to speak some Spanish  and a few became quite fluent.  For the most part these American migrants were not rich and had to seek employment or start business ventures in order to survive.

There was another American community in Mexico at that time; a business community for the most part whose politics were on the other side of the American political spectrum:  "In time, we would discover we had run straight into the arms of the very people we were running away from:  white, middle class, conservative Republicans."  Anhalt says that there was a huge divide between the two groups and, in spite of a shared American identity, the only common neutral ground was that both sent their children to American schools.

In no place was this gap between the American business community and these political fugitives more flagrant than in how they were treated by the American authorities in Mexico.   The ACGM discovered very quickly that the home country had a long reach. Not only were they under surveillance by the FBI but their access to basic consular services at the American embassy was compromised.  Every political expatriate Anhalt talked to had "Embassy stories"or a "Passport/non-Passport story."  In some cases their passports were simply  revoked, in others the consulate withdrew protection or refused to register the births of their children.  When Anhalt's parents tried to do the latter, the Embassy attempted to seize their passports and when they refused to turn them over, "the Embassy reached the conclusion that they could no longer afford the Zykofsky's official protection or registration facilities unless they surrendered their, by then, expired passports and prepared affidavits explaining their alleged Communist activities."  The Embassy then informed the Mexican authorities of their decisions, an act that was essentially an invitation for the Mexicans to deport them.

It is not clear from Anhalt's book at which level these policies were decided but it was undoubtedly tied to the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (passed over the objections and veto of President Harry Truman).

Nonetheless, there was still some protection afforded by the Mexican government since the local authorities frowned on direct attacks on their sovereignty.  A very few Americans were apprehended (illegally) and sent back to the U.S. but in general, the American government "proceeded with extreme caution when engaged in unauthorized seizures of U.S. citizens on Mexican soil or 'unofficial extraditions,' as they were referred to in police jargon."

The period Anhalt writes about (and one she lived personally) is from 1948 to 1965.  Ancient history, some might say, or just a bad period that Americans at home and abroad lived through and learned from.  I'm not so sure.  In a post-911 world were there Americans who left the country for political reasons but did so with such discretion that we will never know them or their motivations?  In historical context,  laws like the Patriot Act seem frighteningly familiar.  Under every discussion Americans abroad have with the homeland is a request on their, or an offering up on our side, of the reasons why we chose to live outside the U.S.  And we all know that there are things to say that will establish us as "legitimate" expatriates in their eyes, and there are things not to say lest we rouse their ire.  The U.S. government's reach is still long and they hold both  the keys to our ever being allowed to return, and control over the breeder documents that allow us to be legal residents elsewhere.

And lastly, it's worth noting that at that time Anhalt writes about, there was very little support or sympathy from the homeland public for these people.  They were described as undesirable, un-American individuals - rich dissident creatives or former ungrateful troublesome immigrants living it up on the beaches of Mexico. Am I being too sensitive when I say that the rhetoric about America's emigrants has not exactly improved in the last 60 years?  What we hear in the American media today about us would seem to confirm that analysis. There is still something very un-American about us and the only difference now is that they have a new reason for suspecting our motives (which are still assumed to be nefarious until proven otherwise).

 Anhalt's words and her research deserve our attention because I believe there are lessons to be gleaned from them that are as relevant today as they were decades ago.  And it's a damn fine read to boot.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

for every generation of us politicians there is a new fashion of hysterical paranoia.
in the 50's it was communists under every bed and hiding in every closet, then it was stock manipulator and now it is terrorists and tax-evaders.
every form of government uses threats to its continuance in power as reasons to limit the freedoms of citizens

Patrick said...

Extremely interesting post. Many thanks Victoria. The US ‘homeland’ viewpoint of emigrants appears to be very much in contrast to that of the UK viewpoint of British emigrants. Possibly this is due to an established pattern of emigration from Britain to Canada, Australia and New Zealand (and the US) largely dating back to the 19th century which was actively encouraged by the government and poverty charities. There also seemed to be national trends, with Scots emigrating to Canada and New Zealand, whilst Irish emigrating to Australia and the US and the English and Welsh emigrating everywhere. Post WWII this was also encouraged by the Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand governments to boost population (e.g., “£10 poms”, which my wife’s parent’s almost became). Many people go abroad to work for a few years and then return. In relatively recent years, many people have relocated (emigrated?) to other EU member states. I find it amusing that when a cast-member leaves ‘Eastenders’, the character played has summarily moved to the costa del sol in Spain. My neighbours are moving to New Zealand. Most here would not think ill of them for doing so. Some (many?) would be envious. Perhaps because the US is a ‘final destination’ or generally sees itself as such, it has difficulty understanding us ‘emigrants’?

Catherine said...

Fascinating. I don't know too much about that part of US's history, except that I can see it today when people accuse one another of being communist. That fear of the 'other' or the 'outsider' doesn't go away, it just seems to change with the times.

Thanks for this little peek into a period I don't know too much about. (Being from Canada)

Michael Putman said...

" In a post-911 world were there Americans who left the country for political reasons but did so with such discretion that we will never know them or their motivations? "

The country was always a bit parochial and neurotic for me, but the whole 'let's tear up the Bill of Rights and also the Geneva Convention, and cap it off with an aggressive and illegal war' shtick was enough to finish alienating me for good. Of course, after a while I stopped feeling alienated and started feeling naturalized in my new country, and that was a welcome relief. After returning the passport I was just glad it was over.

I know of several people who also quietly left for similar reasons (e.g. fear of the new police state, not recognizing the country they grew up in, etc.), and still know of several stuck back in the states who would like to emigrate if they could, but can't.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous & Catherine, Absolutely. The search for the guilty is never ending....

@Patrick, Very good point. Yes, emigration is perceived much more positively in other countries. I speculate that the US has always been a bit nervous about emigration. The idea that the US might be just a way station for further migration or simply a place to earn enough money to back home and retire doesn't sit well with homeland Americans. There is a "debt" they say that these serial or return migrants must pay - the basis for including Green Card holders in the US worldwide taxation scheme.

@Michael, Thank you. I suspect there are many who are not pleased by the state of things in the US. I am one who is losing heart after watching the bloody and utimately futile fight over the debt ceiling. You say that you know some who want to emigrate but can't? Why can't they leave?

Michael Putman said...

Well, they maybe COULD leave, but they feel they can't because of a combination of a) family responsibilities, b) money woes, c) don't think they can apply for permanent residency abroad due to not qualifying for such a visa.

I should say that a few older friends of mine, a married couple, are also expatriates, though they still haven't finally relinquished the blue passport for the German citizenship they are now eligible to attain if they want it. They also left because of politics and general cultural alienation. They were targeted during the so-called Satanic Panic of the late 80s and so already knew that America has a dark paranoid underbelly of persecution ready to emerge against the Other at all times.

Truth be told, I wanted to follow them to Berlin at first, before I also worried about legal status there and making it as a freelancer, and so even though I loved visiting Europe I figured out that common sense dictated the British Commonwealth as THE obvious choice for a Yankee wanting to emigrate.


As to why others can't go, or won't try to, well, one woman I know has two young adult kids whom she is trying to help immigrate to Canada and Australia, respectively, for a better quality of life and to avoid the scary growing US police state, the crime, and generally toxic culture. They are young enough and also single with no kids, so now would be the time to do such an adventure. (I advised that a student visa to Canada is the easiest thing, since you can even get US student loans for it.)

Mind you, myself and these people are not from your own native state, which from what I hear is a pretty progressive area--we are all from Red State territory.

But then, if you really haven't spent much time there since circa 1991 or so, you may nevertheless find the country as a whole increasingly alien to the one you and I grew up in...

I should be in Montreal in late May, incidentally. I would be happy to meet with you and yours if you happen to come to see your daughters there at school. I love Montreal and Quebec, the more so as I can't always afford Europe.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Victoria. I just saw this-
5 months later and was delighted to discover someone actually read "A Gathering of Fugitives..."
Diana Anhalt