A program to construct camps for these many
migrants streaming in to
California was begun and abandoned by the state
government in 1935, but, was quickly taken over by the Resettlement
Even with the assistance of the Federal
Californians feared the additional expenses for welfare relief
and public education. As a result,
Los Angeles “declared war” on these
many emigrants by implementing the “Bum Blockade” in February, 1936.
California's state powers, Police Chief James E. “Two-Gun” Davis,
with the support of the
Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, many public
officials, the railroads, and hard-pressed state relief agencies,
dispatched 136 police officers to 16 major points of entry on the
Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, with orders to turn back migrants with "no visible
means of support."
Indigent Act, passed in 1933, which made it a crime to bring indigent
persons into the state, Davis contended that his men needed no special
approval because "any officer has the authority to enforce the state law."
Asking border-county sheriffs to deputize his
officers, most complied. However, some refused, including Modoc County,
who forced 14 LAPD officers to leave after they turned away local
residents trying to return home.
Promising that $1.5 million would be saved on
"thieves and thugs" and another $3 million in welfare payments, most
newspapers of the time backed Davis and his blockade, including
The Los Angeles Times, which compared Chief Davis to England's
16th-century Queen Elizabeth, who "launched the first war on bums."
However, there was one newspaper – the now-defunct Los Angeles Evening
News, which editorialized that the blockade "violates every principle that
Americans hold dear ... the right of any citizen to go wherever he
Despite some protests, the officers turned
back hundreds of railroad-fare evaders, hitchhikers, families in loaded
down trucks and cars, and in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "all
other persons who have no definite purpose in coming into the state." The
railroads obligingly halted freight trains near police outposts and the
“captured” migrants were offered a choice of leaving
California or serving
a 180-day jail term with hard labor.
In answer to charges that the blockade was an
outrage, the Los Angeles Times editorialized: "Let's Have More Outrages"
and continued to praise the effort as an answer to the waste of taxpayers'
"hard-got tax money" and a way to keep out "imported criminals ...
radicals and troublemakers."
California's Deputy Attorney General,
Jess Hession declared that Davis’ methods were illegal, he was overridden
by the governor, Frank Merriam, who said it was "up to them [Los Angeles
officials] if they can get away with it."
After a couple of months, Davis’ blockade was
finally withdrawn when the use of city funds for this project was
questioned and a number of lawsuits were threatened. In early April, he
called his officers home, but claimed his blockade a success, saying that
the 11,000 people who had been turned away caused an "absence of a
seasonal crime wave in
In 1937, the Resettlement Administration
program was passed on to the newly created Farm Security Administration,
who would build 13 migrant camps to temporarily house many of the
indigents entering the state.
Each camp would temporarily house 300 families
in tents built on wooden platforms. Designed to foster a sense of
self-respect, the camps were self-governing communities, and families had
to work for their room and board.
However, it wasn’t enough, and even when many of those,
who arrived impoverished, could find jobs, their wages
forced them to live in filth and squalor in tents and shanty towns, dubbed
Hoovervilles because residents blamed President Herbert Hoover for their
plight. These shantytowns sprouted up all over in areas such as the Arroyo
Seco, San Gabriel Canyon and Terminal Island.
Though the “Bum Blockade” was over, border
control efforts continued. In 1939, the district attorneys of several of
the counties most affected by the
Dust Bowl influx began using
California's Indigent Act of 1933, to stop the flow of the poor into their
state. Enforcing the Indigent Act, which made it a crime to bring indigent
persons into the state, they indicted, tried and convicted more than two
dozen people who helped their relatives move into
California from the
However, the prosecutions were challenged by
the American Civil Liberties Union, which pushed the issue all the way to
the U.S. Supreme Court, who issued a ruling in 1941 that states had no
right to restrict interstate migration by poor people or any other
The Farm Security Administration continued the
temporary housing program through World War II, when the problem was one
of "mobilizing" sufficient farm labor. In 1942, the Farm Security
Administration operated ninety-five camps with housing for seventy-five
However, as the war went forward, the state of
the economy, both in
California and across the nation, improved dramatically
as the defense industry geared up to meet the needs of the war effort.
Many of the migrants went off to fight in the war. Those who were left
behind took advantage of the job opportunities that had become available
in West Coast shipyards and defense plants. As a result of this more
stable lifestyle, numerous
Dust Bowl refugees put down new roots in
California soil, where their descendants reside to this day.
of America, updated December, 2013.