“Operation Wetback”: Eisenhower’s 1950s Deportation Program, Trump’s Modern-Day Deportation Model

April 26, 2016

“Let me just tell you,” trumpeted Donald Trump at the Republican presidential debate in November, “that Dwight Eisenhower—good president, great president; people liked him. ‘I Like Ike,’ right? The expression ‘I Like Ike’—moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country. Moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again, beyond the border. They came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.”1

The mass deportation program that Trump was referring to was called Operation Wetback.2 Ike implemented Operation Wetback in 1954 in response to national protest against illegal immigration from Mexico, which in the preceding decade had increased by 6,000%.3 The repatriation project was named for the disparaging term, regarded today as an ethnic slur, referring to Mexican immigrants who swam across the Rio Grande to get into Texas.1

Trump touts Operation Wetback as a “humane” model for modern deportation, but critics call this a fantasy.4 Operation Wetback was in fact a human rights failure that cost hundreds of lives.5 The debate was not the first time Trump has endorsed Operation Wetback. In September, he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes Overtime, “We’re rounding them up in a very humane way,” explaining that Eisenhower “did this in the 1950s with over a million people…and it worked.”2

Did it? Let’s take a look at the history of the program. A decade before, while men were fighting in World War II and women were working in factories, the U.S. had faced a significant labor shortage in the fields.1 In 1942 the U.S. arranged a “temporary” agreement with Mexico called the Bracero program, to fill the demand for labor and to protect the rights of Mexican migrant workers.1,3 About 4.6 million legal workers crossed the border as part of the Bracero program, but research shows that the program caused an increase in the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. as well.3,5 By the time the war was over, southwestern agribusiness had become heavily reliant on Mexican farm labor. The termination of the Bracero program, due to grievances from Mexican officials over widespread violation of contracts and discrimination against migrant workers, did nothing to discourage the influx of cheap, illegal labor.3 Job displacement caused public discontent over illegal immigration to simmer and eventually to boil. In 1954, the American Federation of Labor said that it was going to devote “unceasing publicity” to the “wetback problem.”1

In response to the growing turmoil, President Eisenhower organized a campaign to repatriate illegal Mexican immigrants through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the Executive Branch. The Border Patrol teamed up with military and local officials to round up and deport over a million people—not only illegal immigrants, but also U.S. citizens.1,6

The quasi-military tactics used were questionable not only ethically, but legally.1,7Dragnet-style raids throughout the southwest “devastat[ed] Mexican families, disrupt[ed] businesses in Mexican neighborhoods, and fann[ed] interethnic animosities throughout the border region,” writes author David Gutierrez.5 And that wasn’t the worst of it. Deportees were loaded into trucks, trains and ships in numbers that far exceeded the vehicles’ capacity.2 Hundreds of thousands were moved far past the border and then unloaded, with no resources and no means of transportation, in the hot, dry desert of Mexicali—the area to which Trump was referring when he said they were “moved way south” and never returned. Well, it’s true for some that they never returned: at least 88 died of heat stroke there in the desert.5 Deportation boats also proved deadly. Conditions were compared those of an “18th century slave ship.”5 The INS crowded over 500 deportees aboard a ship called the Mercurio which normally carried no more than 90 passengers.5,7Deportees mutinied on this same ship when 40 people jumped overboard and seven drowned.7

Shortly after the Mercurio disaster, which received much attention from Mexican media and officials, Operation Wetback trailed off, having only lasted a few months.5 The INS’s estimated total number of illegal immigrants removed by the program was 1.3 million, but many researchers today believe that number to be highly exaggerated.2,3 More likely, the program itself deported closer to 250,000.2Fearing the dangers of the program, illegal immigrants fled in much greater numbers of their own accord.4 Even so, the INS treated Operation Wetback as a great success: In 1955 it reported, “The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists…The border has been secured.”7 History would soon show the INS was mistaken.

Mr. Trump’s plan to apply this outdated, unethical, violent, and at times lethal program to modern-day America may prove difficult to accomplish. From a purely logistical standpoint, the ability of such a program to take on 11 million undocumented immigrants rather than 250,000 is doubtful.2 More important, though, is the human rights issue. “In addition to violating the civil liberties of American citizens via questionable expulsions,” writes law professor Gilbert Paul Carrasco, “‘Operation Wetback’ violated the human rights of the people being deported. Deportations were characterized by disrespect, rudeness, and intimidation. Reports even mentioned immigration officers ‘collecting fares’ from persons being deported.”6

But all this may not be a problem for Mr. Trump. During their conversation on illegal immigration on 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley cautioned Trump, “There is something called civil rights.” Trump only replied, “There’s also something called, ‘We have a country.’”2

 


 

References

1 Soto, Victoria Defrancesco. "Trump Praised It Without Naming It: What Was 'Operation Wetback?'" NBC News. NBC, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

2 Wang, Yanan. "Donald Trump’s ‘humane’ 1950s Model for Deportation, ‘Operation Wetback’, Was Anything But." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

3 Koestler, Fred L. "Operation Wetback." TSHA Online. Texas State Historical Association, 15 June 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

4 Linthicum, Kate. "The Dark, Complex History of Trump's Model for His Mass Deportation Plan." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 13 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

5 Peralta, Eyder. "It Came Up In The Debate: Here Are 3 Things To Know About 'Operation Wetback'" NPR. NPR, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

6 Planas, Roque. "Donald Trump Wants to Relive 'Operation Wetback.'" Huffpost Latino Voices. Huffington Post, 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

7 Tristam, Pierre. "'Operation Wetback': Illegal Immigration's Golden-Crisp Myth." Common Dreams. 5 Apr. 2007. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

8 "Dwight Eisenhower on Immigration." On the Issues. 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

About Author(s)

Erin Barton
Erin Barton is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an intern for Panoramas and studies English Writing, Spanish and Latin American Studies. Erin studied in Cuba for 4 months during the spring of 2016 and has been writing on Cuban and Latin American issues for Panoramas since 2015.