Trump started off his campaign by saying Mexicans are rapists who bring drugs across the border. His solution was to build a wall, and he’s stuck by the statement even amidst the policy mood swings of his campaign. This “populist” platform has led to Twitter debates with former Mexican presidents and only 19 percent support from Hispanic voters, according to recent polling.
Trump has also expressed a commitment to forcibly deporting immigrants already within the country, even stating that he’d like to commission a task force for exactly this purpose.
Last September, Trump iterated his support for Operation Wetback, a controversial mass deportation operation that President Eisenhower enacted in 1954. In an interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley, Trump was asked to articulate his plans for limiting illegal immigration.
“We’re rounding them up in a very humane way, a very nice way,” Trump said.
“What does that roundup look like to you?” Pelley asked. “How does it work? Are you going to have cops going door-to-door?”
“Did you like Eisenhower? Did you like Dwight Eisenhower as a president at all?” Trump retorted.
“He did this,” Trump continued. “He did this in the 1950s with over a million people, and a lot of people don’t know that…and it worked.”
In a debate in November, Trump doubled down on this position:
“Eisenhower moved immigrants 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. Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer, you don’t get friendlier.”
Operation Wetback, one of the most coercive immigration policies of the last 75 years in the US (and named after a racist term) began in 1954 and was carried out by Border Patrol agents. They rounded up Mexican laborers from fields and ranches in raids, sent them to the border, and then transported them deep into Mexico. Sometimes this was done by airlift and other times on cargo boats that typically hauled bananas. These boats, a congressional investigation later found, were comparable to an “eighteenth-century slave ship”, and their use was discontinued only after the drowning of seven deportees who jumped ship from the Mercurio, provoking a mutiny and leading to a public outcry against the practice in Mexico.
The program came about, in part, as a reaction to the Bracero Program, which allowed about 4.6 million Mexicans to cross the border legally because the US had just entered World War II and needed agricultural labor. Yet, once service members returned home, things changed.
In 1951 President Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor released a report that blamed illegal immigration not only for the low wages in the Southwest, but also the social ills of the country. The report even went on to note that “the magnitude … has reached entirely new levels in the past 7 years.… In its newly achieved proportions, it is virtually an invasion.”
Beginning in Arizona and California, the plan counted on publicity and selective shows of force to cause others to flee the US. In Texas upwards of 63,000 individuals chose to return to Mexico, and U.S. officials detained another 42,000 people in July 1954. A report from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) found that nearly 1.1 million individuals were rounded up, though that figure is debated.
Doris Meissner, who was Commissioner of the U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service between 1993 and 2000 and now directs immigration policy work at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, told CNN that Operation Wetback “was lawless; it was arbitrary; it was based on a lot of xenophobia, and it resulted in sizable large-scale violations of people’s rights, including the forced deportation of U.S. citizens.”
Buses of deportees were dropped in places like Mexicali, Mexico. There, the temperatures can be as high as 125 degrees and deportees were left on the streets with only the possessions they could carry and no way of getting to their homes.
As Mae Ngai wrote in her book Impossible Subjects:
“Some 88 braceros died of sun stroke as a result of a round-up that had taken place in 112-degree heat, and [an American labor official] argued that more would have died had Red Cross not intervened. At the other end of the border, in Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican labor leader reported that ‘wetbacks’ were ‘brought [into Mexico] like cows’ on trucks and unloaded fifteen miles down the highway from the border, in the desert.”
In 1955, the INS pronounced the operation a success, claiming that, “The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists. … This is no longer, as in the past, a problem in border control. The border has been secured.”
Trump’s desire to remove the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants via this same process has been met with scorn, disbelief and, by some, encouragement. That being said, it’s been largely discredited given the costs it would entail as well as the social implications. Nonetheless, his mention of the program shows us that we’ve been in this position as a country before, and we didn’t handle it well. Faced with the prospects of a Trump presidency, perhaps we can stop history from repeating itself, no matter who wins come November.