“OPERATION WETBACK”: History’s Most Massive Deportation of Undocumented Immigrants from the USA

By: William H. Tucker*.

Recently, political candidates in the United States have discussed the possibility of repeating “Operation Wetback” to deport more than two million “undocumented” Mexicans. Many people do not remember this deportation program from history.

The most massive deportation of undocumented Mexicans in the history of the United States began in June, 1954 and was called “Operation Wetback.” “Wetback” was a term used for “illegal” Mexican immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande to get into the United States. We can only guess what motivated President Dwight D. Eisenhower to implement this plan because very little was written in his official papers about this operation. What we do know is as many as three (3) million illegal migrants had entered the U.S. for jobs in California, Arizona, and Texas before 1951, and that the number was growing by as much as a million per year. The border between Mexico and the United States was so porous it was almost non-existent and profits from illegal labor led to a kind of corruption that worried President Eisenhower. Let’s look back at the history.

Dwight Eisenhower

US President Dwight Eisenhower implemented “Operation Wetback,” the most massive deportation of aliens.

In 1949, the Border Patrol seized nearly 280,000 illegal immigrants and by 1953, that number had grown to more than 865,000. In 1951, before being elected president, Retired General Eisenhower wrote a letter to Sen. William Fulbright (Democrat) of Arkansas regarding the problem. The senator had just proposed that a special commission be created by Congress to examine unethical conduct by government officials who accepted gifts and favors in exchange for special treatment of private individuals. He quoted a report in The New York Times, highlighting one paragraph that said: “The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president of the United States and had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration when he took office. America “was faced with a breakdown in law enforcement on a very large scale,” said Attorney General Brownell. In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed retired General Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, a former West Point classmate and veteran of the 101st Airborne, as the new INS Commissioner, and thus began what history now views as a quasi-military operation to find and seize illegal immigrants.

General Swing oversaw the Border Patrol, and organized state and local officials along with the police. The object of his intense border enforcement was “illegal aliens,” but common practice of “Operation Wetback” focused on Mexicans in general.

The police swarmed through Mexican-American communities throughout the southeastern states. Some residents, fearful of the potential violence of this militarization, fled back south across the border. In some cases, illegal immigrants were deported along with their American-born children, who were by law U.S. citizens.

The agents adopted the practice of stopping “Mexican-looking” American citizens on the street and asking for identification. This practice incited and angered many U.S. citizens who were of Mexican-American descent. Opponents in both the United States and Mexico complained of “police-state” methods.

Mexicans caught in the roundup were not simply released at the border where they could easily reenter the USA. To discourage their return, General Swing arranged for buses and trains to take many aliens deep within Mexico before setting them free. Tens of thousands more were put aboard two hired ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The ships ferried the aliens from Port Isabel, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico, more than 500 miles south.

Many people have no idea that immigration from non-European countries was restricted in the United States up until 1965, when the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act was passed that changed the focus to immigrants’ skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens. But, America created the system of undocumented immigrants from Asia and Latin America that still has not been addressed. Listen to the experts:

* Our co-founder and publisher William H. Tucker passed away on May 15, 2016. This is one of many articles that he researched and wrote, and for which he will be remembered.

Related Articles:

The Mexican Immigration Problem in the USA: How it Started, Part 1

The Mexican Immigration Problem: How it Started, Part 2

The Mexican Immigration Problem: How it Started, Part 3 Final

Do You Know What Legal Documents Mexicans Need to Visit the USA or Canada?

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