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Operation Wetback

Operation Wetback

SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM

ENFORCEMENT

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback in June and July 1954. It was a massive, coordinated effort involving the U.S. Border Patrol and local law enforcement agencies to curtail illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. The term wetback, which came into widespread use in Texas during the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a derogatory term used to describe Mexicans who waded or swam across the Rio Grande River into Texas illegally. In Spanish they were referred to as espaldas mojadas (“wet backs”).

The impetus for Operation Wetback stemmed from a tour along the southern border of California by U.S. attorney general Herbert Brownell in 1953. Initially Brownell was not supportive of increased security along the border. However, in April 1953 he was convinced by proponents of immigration reform and control to tour the Southwest border. During his trip to California, he witnessed firsthand the illegal crossing of Mexican workers into the United States. Shortly thereafter Brownell began a two-pronged campaign to bring the border under control. One prong involved the enactment of legislation imposing a penalty on any employer who “knowingly” hired undocumented workers. Brownell also sought increased funding for the understaffed Border Patrol and money with which to construct a 150-mile fence along the California-Mexico border. The other part of his plan was to conduct a massive roundup of illegal immigrants who had crossed the border from Mexico. This part of the plan came to be known as Operation Wetback.

At the urging of Brownell and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Congress increased funding for the Border Patrol. The congressional response was also influenced by national media coverage of illegal immigration’s growing threat to national security and the American economy. Proponents of immigration control argued that the number of Mexicans entering the United States illegally had increased by 6,000 percent between 1944 and 1954. When the economy took a downturn in the early 1950s, organized labor blamed the widespread use of illegal immigrant workers. Labor leaders argued that undocumented workers deprived American citizens of jobs, lowered wages, and disrupted unionization efforts by serving as strike breakers or “scab” labor. Undocumented immigrants were also accused of increasing crime in border communities, affecting the health of those communities by bringing with them communicable diseases, and of serving as a smokescreen for the infiltration of communists and subversives who crossed into the United States through its “unprotected” southern borders.

In 1952 Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which in part allowed for the deportation of immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in subversive activities. It also permitted the government to bar suspected subversives from entering the United States. President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, stating that “it would make a mockery of the Bill of Rights.” Congress overrode the president’s veto. The law, which disproportionately affected Mexican Americans engaged in civil rights struggles, effectively silenced activists and critics of immigration policies.

SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM

Ideologues were not the only ones who supported immigration reform. President Dwight D. Eisenhower felt a sense of urgency about illegal immigration when he assumed office. He was concerned that powerful grower interests who benefited from illegal immigration had bribed and intimidated federal office holders and enforcement agencies into not enforcing immigration laws. He considered this unethical, and decided he would move against government officials who engaged in this kind of conduct.

Mexican-American civil rights groups supported stricter enforcement of immigration laws as well. Organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum believed that undocumented workers had a deleterious effect on Mexican-American farm workers’ employment and earnings. They believed that illegal immigrants impeded assimilation and undermined efforts to achieve civil rights for Mexican Americans. They also held that illegals added to problems of health, crime, and unemployment—all of which reflected poorly on the Mexican-American community.

The popular media’s increased coverage of illegal immigration brought national attention to the problem. Most of the coverage emphasized the lack of enforcement, attributing to illegals the blame for growing rates of crime, illiteracy, ill health, and unemployment in border communities. This media coverage further fueled fears that the uncontrolled influx of “alien hordes” from Mexico had caused the nation to lose control of its own borders.

Mexico, too, joined in the chorus for stricter enforcement. Long criticized by its own citizens for failing to protect Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally, the Mexican government had undertaken measures to dissuade its citizens from emigrating illegally. Critics of illegal emigration in Mexico believed that it represented the loss of valuable and much-needed labor. They chafed at the ill treatment accorded Mexicans, and believed that illegal immigration undermined the Bracero Program, which ostensibly provided contract guarantees to Mexican laborers in terms of wages, housing, and transportation. However, measures by Mexican officials to stem illegal emigration to the United States had proven ineffective. Therefore, Mexico was eager to work with the United States in stopping illegal immigration.

ENFORCEMENT

In the years preceding Operation Wetback the Border Patrol’s ability to carry out its functions had steadily deteriorated. This was due to inadequate funding, the influence of powerful agribusiness interests in Congress who benefited greatly from a plentiful supply of cheap labor, and from internal problems stemming from poor organization and inadequate officers to patrol the vast border region. Renewed concerns about enforcement resulted in efforts to reorganize the Border Patrol. To lead this process, Eisenhower appointed a former West Point classmate, Joseph Swing, to serve as commissioner of Immigration. Swing immediately reorganized the Border Patrol along military lines. He brought a new look, greater professionalism, and new leadership to the organization. One of the agents who emerged as a new driving force in the Border Patrol was Harlon Carter, who initially laid out the plan for what became known as Operation Wetback.

It was Carter who proposed the creation of mobile task forces. These task forces would bring concentrated numbers of agents and equipment to designated areas to carry out sweeps to round up “illegal aliens” and transport them back to Mexico. Each operation was preceded by a massive publicity campaign designed to alert citizens and “aliens” alike of the impending roundup. The idea was that such a media blitz would cause illegals to flee across the border before the sweep began. Staging areas along the U.S.-Mexico border were established. To discourage immediate reentry by those captured in the sweeps, arrangements were made with the Mexican government to transport the deportees on trains to the interior parts of Mexico.

The first phase of Operation Wetback began in California in May 1954. As planned, a media campaign was launched announcing the intended sweep by the U.S. Border Patrol and local agencies. The media blitz, probably the most important factor in the success of the campaign, made it sound as if a veritable army of Border Patrol agents was being assembled to conduct the sweep. In truth, the task force consisted of about 800 agents. Nonetheless, the announcements created fear and uncertainty in Mexican communities throughout California. People still recalled the deportation drives in the early 1930s, when citizens and noncitizens alike were sent back to Mexico. Local observers reported that they witnessed large numbers of Mexicans leaving the United States.

On June 10, Border Patrol agents launched the opening phase of the operation. The raids targeted local businesses, parks, recreation centers, and any other places that were known to attract undocumented workers, according to information provided by local authorities. The sweeps served as a clear reminder to Mexicans and Mexican Americans of their precarious status in the United States. Mexicans apprehended in this initial sweep were placed on buses and driven to staging areas, where they awaited transportation on Mexican trains into the interior. On June 17, the Special Mobile Task Force shifted its operation to agricultural areas in California and Arizona because of the significant decline in apprehensions in the urban areas.

Mexican border cities, completely unprepared to handle the large influx of refugees, found themselves inundated by those fleeing the sweeps. They lacked the facilities to house, feed, and care for the number of people who poured into their communities. To make matters worse, there were delays in getting enough rail cars for the trains to transport people into Mexico’s interior.

By the end of June the number of undocumented Mexicans picked up by the mobile task force had declined significantly. Border Patrol leadership decided to continue mop-up activities on a smaller scale in California, and to begin the second phase of the operation in Texas. That phase began in July 1954. Whereas in California growers and proponents of immigration control had widely supported the roundup of undocumented workers, the Border Patrol faced a far different situation in Texas.

In 1948 Mexico had blacklisted Texas growers from the use of braceros because of their blatant disregard of the contract agreement. Texas growers, who cared little for the requirements imposed on them by the Bracero Program, preferred to use illegal labor. They resisted all attempts at enforcement and federal interference. Many growers and the communities that depended on them viewed the Border Patrol as an “army of occupation” and made many of the agents feel unwelcome in the districts to which they were assigned. When news of Operation Wetback reached Texas, agricultural interests launched a full-scale attack on the plan. Herbert Brownell visited the Rio Grande region to gain their cooperation, and that of the Mexican-American community. He assured growers and local leaders that there would be plenty of affordable labor available to them. His words fell on deaf ears. The Border Patrol and the INS received little support from the growers for their campaign. They did, however, have the support of groups like LULAC and the American G.I. Forum.

Despite the widespread resentment and lack of cooperation, the Border Patrol began operations in the Rio Grande region. Again the operation was preceded by a publicity campaign that caused an unknown number of Mexicans to flee across the border. The actual sweeps began on July 15 and continued until the end of the month. The initial sweep netted the Border Patrol about 4,000 apprehensions. Thereafter apprehensions fell off to about 1,100 per day. Again, those apprehended were placed on buses and taken across the border into Mexico. Others were placed on board two ships, the S.S. Emancipación and S.S. Mercurio, and transported to the port of Vera Cruz. The total number of Mexicans who left South Texas as a result of the drive and the attendant publicity was estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000 by the Border Patrol. The INS proclaimed the operation a great success, but not everyone applauded it. Critics, including Mexican-American civil rights activists, described Operation Wetback as heartless and xenophobic.

The campaign ended in mid-September 1954, both because the drive had pretty well exhausted the funding for the operation and mid-September marked the end of the growing season. Therefore the reduction in employment opportunities, the drive, and the attendant publicity campaign all served to discourage illegal entry at this time. According to the INS the entire campaign had resulted in the departure of more than 1.3 million undocumented Mexicans from the country through deportation, repatriation, or voluntary departures spurred by publicity of the impending roundup. There was, however, no way to prove the accuracy of these estimates.

Meanwhile, attempts at enacting legislation designed to curb illegal immigration by imposing fines and imprisonment on employers foundered in Congress. Instead Congress voted increased appropriations for the INS to control the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico as a way of mollifying those who wanted employer sanctions.

SEE ALSO Border Patrol; Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Craig, Richard B. 1971. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

García, Juan R. 1980. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hadley, Eleanor. 1956. “A Critical Analysis of the Wetback Problem.” Law and Contemporary Problems 21 (2): 334–357.

Hernández, Kelly Lytle. 2006. “The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross-Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1943 to 1954.” Western Historical Quarterly 37 (4): 421–444.

Morgan, Patricia. 1954. Shame of a Nation: A Documented Story of Police-State Terror Against Mexican-Americans in the U.S.A. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born.

“Operation Wetback.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Available from http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/OO/pqo1.html.

Juan R. García

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