Left: President Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 (AFP/AFP/Getty Images) Right: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in August (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Updated: This story, originally published Sept. 30, has been updated and republished in light of Donald Trump’s comments Tuesday night on immigration during the Milwaukee debate.

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.

“Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” Trump said Tuesday night during the Republican debate in Milwaukee. “‘I like Ike,'” right? The expression. ‘I like Ike.’ Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them 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.”

Trump made his affinity for Operation Wetback clear during an interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley in September. 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.”

[Donald Trump’s amazingly vague ’60 Minutes’ interview, annotated]

As Huffington Post Latino Voices pointed out Tuesday, this program was none other than Operation Wetback. It was named after the disparaging term for Mexicans who arrived in America through the Rio Grande, and considered by many immigration scholars as a painful part of national history because of the documented abuse that Mexican migrants suffered during and after their deportations. The tactical push from the U.S. Border Patrol was initiated by then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., who told officers to shoot point-blank “wetbacks” attempting to enter America.

At around the same time, patrol officers in Texas and California established “a little barbershop for chronic offenders” at their detention centers, shaving the heads of migrants so they would be easily recognizable if they tried to come across the border a second or third time. When Chief Patrol Inspector Fletcher Rawls deemed this practice a violation of the detainees’ civil rights, the U.S. Border Patrol encouraged Mexican offers to take up the “clipping” in their stead.

“Like usual, [Trump] doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Rodolfo Acuña, professor emeritus of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, told The Huffington Post.

“Brownell said, ‘Just give them some live ammo, let them shoot a few people. Then everyone will be scared and they won’t come across the border,” he said. “Really humane.”


A group of Mexican laborers from the northern Indiana and Illinois region walk to board a train in Chicago, Ill., to be deported to their native Mexico, July 27, 1951. (AP Photo)

After all that, did Operation Wetback actually work?

Historians dispute reports on its ultimate success. Some retired border patrol officers recall that the efforts were effective. The one-million-deported figure that Trump cites was the one that Brownell trumpeted a year after Operation Wetback’s implementation, but researchers say that number is highly exaggerated.

[Donald Trump’s immigration message is potent. It’s also a lost cause.]

In Kelly Lytle Hernández’s article “The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross-Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1934 to 1954,” the UCLA history professor contends that based on federal immigration and naturalization reports, the one million reported deportations were not a result of the 1954 campaign but rather of decades of aggressive apprehension tactics undertaken by the U.S. Border Patrol.

“Did the campaign end unsanctioned migration across the U.S.-Mexico border and substantially reduce the size of the undocumented population living in the United States?” Hernández wrote in an email. “It did not.”

She noted that in the period that the Eisenhower administration heralded as the biggest indication of Operation Wetback’s success, “The U.S. Border Patrol deported no more than 250,000 people.”

“In fact,” Hernández added, “what was far more effective at reducing the size of the undocumented population was the operation’s parallel but lesser-known campaign to legalize authorized farm workers.”

Indeed, Operation Wetback was applied in tandem with the Bracero Program and the H-2 Visa Program, both initiatives which allowed millions of Mexican laborers to live in the U.S. legally under temporary work permits.

The Bracero Program is known for its own set of abuses, as many workers reported decrepit living conditions and illegal wages. In his CBS interview, Trump promises that “the really good ones” among the deportees will be allowed to return after they file for legal immigration documents back in Mexico. Aside from his Eisenhower reference, he didn’t clarify how they would be brought to his “real wall” that will ostensibly both work and look good.

Another thing that Trump didn’t discuss: even if the one-million figure is accurate, it doesn’t come close to the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

“There is something called civil rights,” Pelley pointed out during 60 Minutes Overtime.

To this, Trump responded with a shrug, “There’s also something called, ‘We have a country.'”

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