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“Operation Wetback”
Illegal Immigration’s Golden-Crisp Myth

The truth isn't always out there

Three weeks ago I wrote about Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 “peace and friendship” tour through several Asian countries, a trip characterized by an outpouring of warmth from millions in countries where Americans aren’t as welcome anymore— Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, even India. A caller termed the piece “disingenuous” for not mentioning that Eisenhower was reviled in Mexico, because Eisenhower was the last president to solve the illegal immigration problem.

The caller, who didn’t give his name in the recorded message he left but seemed precisely informed, described how Eisenhower approved an operation that had 1,000 federal agents rounding up thousands of illegal immigrants in California and Arizona and deporting them deep into Mexico beginning in 1954. Two ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio, even took them hundreds of miles down the coast. Within months, up to a million illegals had left, most of them supposedly on their own for fear of being rounded up. The voice on the phone called it “Operation Wetback,” and said the best thing the United States could do now was repeat it and throw every last one of “them” back across the border. I thought the caller was kidding. Could this country ever have officially called something “Operation Wetback”?

Stupid question, considering the country’s racist heritage. A quick online check immediately produced the articles the caller must’ve been referencing, including a 2006 column in the Christian Science Monitor by that paper’s former managing editor, John Dillin, recalling “Operation Wetback” and those two ships admiringly. It was as if I was reading a transcript of the caller’s message.

The story has a ring of simplicity well suited to this age of one-dimensional solutions framed by force. The reality of “Operation Wetback” wasn’t so simple. Eisenhower’s sweep was effective because it was mass deportation on the Soviet model, not because it was admirable, let alone fair or, in thousands of cases, legal. Mexicans were especially targeted whether they were legal immigrants or not. Children of Mexican parents, who were American citizens for having been born on American soil, were deported, too. We just learned that Americans by the thousands (and their children) are being denied Medicaid benefits because they can’t produce proof of citizenship under a new law designed to target illegal immigrants. Imagine how many Mexicans were wrongly targeted for deportation in the mid-1950s.

On March 9, 1955, Immigration Commissioner Joseph Swing triumphantly declared mission accomplished to a House subcommittee: “The wetback situation will be definitely under control,” he said, with just 300 illegal migrants caught daily, down from 3,000. The figures are as suspect as the government’s precise tallies of people leaving voluntarily (45,953 in Texas alone by July 1954) — as if illegals were going up to border posts to record their departure and say farewell. More likely, they did what they do today. When enforcement intensifies in one sector, they move to another.

The government’s deportation methods were beyond suspect. A congressional investigation described the Mercurio as a “hell ship” where abuse of deportees may have been rampant. According to a United Press report from August 1956, “The Justice Department permitted the Immigration Service to crowd 500 Mexicans aboard a ship that normally carried seventy to ninety persons.” The Mercurio’s two lifeboats had a total capacity of 48. Less than a week after the House Government Committee investigation was made public, Mexicans mutinied aboard the ship after 40 people jumped overboard and seven drowned in an attempt to reach shore. Deportations by ship were halted. Airlifts replaced that method until the late 1950s, but even Stalinist sweeps can’t be sustained forever. “Operation Wetbacks” ended in the sunset of Eisenhower’s presidency.

Forgotten in that bullying decade and since was the Truman commission on illegal immigration that came closest to solving the issue, but at a price: Better wages for migrant laborers and strictly regulated working conditions. Federal agents wouldn’t be raiding workplaces to check on the legality of workers, but to verify employers’ documentation of fair pay and the kind of working conditions Americans would not consider beneath them. Employers’ advantage of hiring illegal immigrants would vanish. No demand, no need for supply. The recommendations never became law. The West’s big farmers defeated them, because that, in the end, is who enables illegal immigration — the employers who profit from it and the consumers who demand it by way of low-cost food, nannies, maids, fern-cutters.

“Illegals” are the most despised, most abused, most punished and most condemned for the problem. But they’re the least to blame and the worthiest of praise. They’re busboys to American extravagance.

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