Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Was "Operation Wetback?"

If you watched the GOP debate last night on Fox Business News you saw Donald Trump compare his immigration policy to the 1955 roundup of illegal Mexican immigrants in a project, endorsed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, known as "Operation Wetback."

The Wikipedia page on Operation Wetback is pretty good.  It draws heavily from Columbia University historian Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

Here is a taste of a Washington Post piece explaining Operation Wetback:


In Mexicali, Mexico, temperatures can reach 125 degrees as heat envelops an arid desert. Without a body of water nearby to moderate the climate, the heavy sun is relentless — and deadly.
During the summer of 1955, this is where hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were “dumped” after being discovered as migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Unloaded from buses and trucks carrying several times their capacity, the deportees stumbled into the Mexicali streets with few possessions and no way of getting home.
This was strategic: the more obscure the destination within the Mexican interior, the less opportunities they would have to return to America. But the tactic also proved to be dangerous, as the migrants were left without resources to survive.
After one such round-up and transfer in July, 88 people died from heat stroke.
At another drop-off point in Nuevo Laredo, the migrants were “brought like cows” into the desert.
Among the over 25 percent who were transported by boat from Port Isabel, Texas, to the Mexican Gulf Coast, many shared cramped quarters in vessels resembling an “eighteenth century slave ship” and “penal hell ship.”
These deportation procedures, detailed by historian Mae M. Ngai, were not anomalies. They were the essential framework of Operation Wetback — a concerted immigration law enforcement effort implemented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 — and the deportation model that Donald Trump says he intends to follow.
Trump made his affinity for Operation Wetback clear during an interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley over the weekend. Speaking on 60 Minutes Overtime, Pelley asked Trump to explain his plans for curbing illegal immigration.
“We’re rounding them up in a very humane way, a very nice way,” Trump said, as he has expressed before.
“What does that roundup look like to you?” Pelley pressed. “How does it work? Are you going to have cops going door-to-door?”
Trump interjected: “Did you like Eisenhower? Did you like Dwight Eisenhower as a president at all?”
“He did this,” the presidential candidate said. “He did this in the 1950s with over a million people, and a lot of people don’t know that…and it worked.”
Read the entire article here.
I think it is fair to say that Trump wants to revive one of the darker moments in American history. This is clearly one of these examples in America's past where its leaders did not live up to the nation's highest ideals. When it comes to the blatant disrespect for human dignity it is certainly in the same general ballpark as slavery or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.