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(TNS) — California should pay reparations to victims of its eugenics-based sterilization programs, which took away the reproductive abilities of about 20,000 people in the first half of the 20th century, researchers said in a new study.

In particular, Mexican immigrants were disproportionately affected by those programs.

Overall, an estimated 800 victims may still be alive, according to the paper.

“Given the advanced age and declining numbers of sterilization survivors, time is of the essence for the state to seriously consider reparations,” said Alexandra Stern at the University of Michigan, the study’s lead author.

Nationwide, Virginia and North Carolina have set up funds to compensate survivors of sterilization programs that were based on the eugenics movement.

Inspiring atrocities

Followers of the eugenics campaign believed that people they deemed genetically “unfit” shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. The American movement was a model and inspiration for the atrocities that took place in Nazi Germany, experts have documented.

California led the United States in the number of sterilizations during that movement; about a third of such procedures in the nation happened there. It’s unclear how active the programs were in San Diego County.

California’s law permitting the sterilizations was passed in 1909 and remained on the books until 1979. In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis issued a brief official apology on behalf of the state.

“To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years,” he wrote. “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter … one that must never be repeated.”

Stereotyping

Lawmakers’ fears of the growing numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California led to disproportionate use of sterilization on Mexican-origin youths, said Natalie Lira, a researcher on Stern’s team and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois.

Stereotyping of Mexicans during the eugenics movement made its way into immigration laws, political discourse and popular media and persists today, Lira and Stern said. They noted that the National Origins Act, passed in 1924, was influenced by the California movement. The federal legislation created immigration quotas, including reductions in the number of people allowed into the U.S. from areas outside of northern Europe.

Eugenicists believed young Mexican women were promiscuous and that young Mexican men were criminals by nature.

Lira said Mexican women also were thought of as hyperfertile, which added to eugenicists’ fears that they would have many children and harm the American gene pool. These women were frequently compared to animals, Lira said.

Young women who had children outside of marriage or who were deemed sexually promiscuous were institutionalized at places such as the Pacific Colony and State Narcotics Hospital in Pomona, as were young men who committed minor violations or crimes, including school truancy and petty theft, Lira said. Many of the institutionalized were then sterilized.

Reproductive constraints

“What happened to the individuals that were committed to the institutions and sterilized really taught us a lot about how race and disability have been used and continue to be used to justify confinement and reproductive constraints,” Lira said.

For example, the Center for Investigative Reporting has reported that at least 148 women were sterilized in state prisons between 2006 and 2010.