In Box 4 of the diaries of President Dwight David Eisenhower maintained at his presidential library are his personal notes from January to November of 1954. The library's summary articulates what's covered, including, "Dirksen discussion with DDE; notes on Bricker Amendment; school construction; wetbacks; Brazilian coffee."

"Wetbacks." In 1954, Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell, expanded a Border Patrol effort to repatriate Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally, following a wave of border crossings. That effort, officially named Operation Wetback, was approvingly referenced by Donald Trump during the fourth Republican debate Tuesday as proof that millions of illegal immigrants can indeed be deported — despite general understanding at this point that the operation was inhumane and occasionally deadly.

Eisenhower, still in his first term, was under pressure to address the problem of illegal immigration— the "wetback problem," in the vernacular of the era, referring to the dangerous crossing of the Rio Grande River. In June 1953, the Border Patrol arrested 50,000 immigrants near Los Angeles, according to Senate testimony from Brownell. In August, the number was 60,000; in September 65,000. Brownell sought to do more, including the use of American troops to defend the border.

The United States ambassador to Mexico cautioned Secretary of State John Foster Dulles against such a move.

"If troops are sent [to the border] to keep the wetbacks out, how are they going to do it?" Ambassador Francis White wrote. "Not by giving them a pat on the back and asking them politely to go home. If their job is to keep the wetbacks out and they see some fellow trying to sneak across, somebody is going to use his gun. Even if it is only a warning shot, he will be shooting south and somebody is going to get hurt. Incidents will inevitably happen."

White agreed that something needed to be done, but he objected to troops. In a line that could have come from Trump himself (save the derogatory term), White wrote that "the wetback situation in California has become particularly bad because the wetbacks are resorting to violence." He added another warning: "The effect of this on the Republican Party is also obvious. The Democrats would be provided with a wonderful issue that the good-neighbor policy had been jettisoned and we were back to the use of troops and force."


(New York Times, 1954)

In January 1954, the New York Times reported that an immigrant was crossing the border illegally every 30 seconds. The political debate heated up; Brownell pledged that legislation would be introduced on Capitol Hill. (He was also forced to deny a rumor that he'd suggested killing a few immigrants to deter others.)

Carl Hayden of Arizona, then a member of the House, sent a letter to Eisenhower in early 1954 demanding action on the "wetbacks." His argument will also sound familiar: The immigrants were taking American jobs.


(Arizona Memory Project)

By the middle of June 1954, the purge had begun. The end of an initial grace period prompted some immigrants to leave before being arrested; a New York Times report described the "gaunt, ill-clad and penniless" groups heading south in California in what it described as the greatest exodus from the state since the 1940 draft.

By the end of the month, the Border Patrol moved on to Texas, prompting frustration from farmers near the Rio Grande who were losing labor. Elsewhere in the state, there were reports that the arrested immigrants were forced to pay their own train fare.

Wetback_baot

Immigrants (and some American citizens) were sent to Mexico by train, truck and boat. In one infamous incident, an overpacked ship in the Gulf of Mexico prompted a riot after which 37 immigrants jumped into the Gulf and five drowned.

"Operation Wetback" didn't last long. In his 1956 Senate testimony, Brownell declared the effort "was accomplished skillfully and quickly" and that the border was "almost wholly relieved of the wetback problem." He noted that the number of people attempting to enter the country had declined significantly.

Frustration over Mexican immigration — actual and perceived — has outlasted the official use of the term "wetback." In 1994, an aide to former Virginia governor George Allen (R) was criticized for referring to workers as "wetbacks" — only two decades after the EPA used the term in the description of a photo of deported farmworkers. "HIGHER U.S WAGES ATTRACT 300,000 WETBACKS ANNUALLY," it reads, in part.

Wetback_Deport
(National Archives)

Which is what makes Trump's proposal so interesting. He avoided the name of the program but not the result. The word is politically unacceptable; the action, it seems, is not.