Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who craves the limelight, President Trump has made publicity stunts central to his immigration agenda, including his deployment of 5,000 troops to the border, his border visit during the shutdown and his recent threats to declare a national emergency. But such public-facing feints at border militarization draw upon a very real historical act, one of the most unfortunate episodes of modern U.S. history: the deportation of 1.3 million Mexicans during the derisively named “Operation Wetback.”
That action was the result of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to redefine the long-standing demand for immigrant labor in the United States as a security crisis. The result of this fabricated crisis: the use of military means to fortify the border and scare the region’s residents of Mexican descent, racial coding of Mexican immigrants as enemies and mass deportation campaigns along the border (and in the interior). The Trump administration now seeks to reenact that same process of dehumanizing people of Latin American descent, turning them from productive residents into faceless threats.
In 1954, Immigration and Naturalization Service leadership declared there was a crisis of illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Attorney General Herbert Brownell sought a career military man to deploy militarized tactics and technologies along the border in a mass deportation program accompanied by a well-orchestrated public relations campaign.
Joseph Swing, a former Army general who headed the INS, took the lead to militarize the border region. He created a mobile task force of law enforcement agents to round up undocumented Mexican immigrants and force them south of the border. Deploying the military terminology of “sweeps” and “operations,” several hundred agents would quite literally encircle communities, forcing people across the border via bus, boat, train and airlifts. The use of military means to remove “wetbacks” (mojados) — a racially divisive and pejorative term — was a way to cast doubt on all Mexican migrants’ rights to be in the United States.
All of this was done with careful attention to public relations. Swing and his agents controlled media coverage, creating news releases to tout the successes of deportations and crafting media relations in a manner conducive to INS interests. Such media strategy was necessary because the sweeps could be violent, even deadly. As historian Mae M. Ngai noted in her book, “Impossible Subjects,” “Some eighty-eight braceros died of sunstroke as a result of a round-up that had taken place in 112-degree heat, and [labor official Milton Plumb] argued that more would have died had Red Cross not intervened.”
The U.S. operation was deployed at the height of the Bracero Program, a temporary worker initiative with Mexico that had been designed as a wartime labor relief measure but continued at the behest of the U.S. agriculture industry from 1942 to 1964. The program actively recruited over 309,000 Mexican laborers in 1954 to temporarily work on U.S. farms to, in the words of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, “harvest the food for the best-fed nation in the world.” But the demand for labor exceeded the federal contracts issued for workers, creating a demand for more undocumented migrants.
And so in 1954, the INS began repatriating these undocumented workers with Swing’s tactics. Now recognized as a Low Intensity Conflict doctrine, Swing’s approach was similar to that used on the battlefield in response to the guerrilla tactics deployed first by Korean and later Vietnamese soldiers. In short, undocumented immigrants were treated as “enemies.”
The military-style deportation campaign used sweeps, mop-up operations, military equipment and principles from low-intensity conflict spatial containment). Historian Juan Ramon García notes Attorney General Brownell gave a speech on the border where he stated that the best way to repel migrants from Mexico "would be to allow the border patrol to shoot some of them.” Swing, the first administration official to suggest a chain-link fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, was hired because he had a long history of policing the border stemming from his role in the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa and his forces during the Mexican revolution.
Sweeps began June 9 in California, then spread eastward through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, with operations spreading to the Midwest by Sept. 18. Deportees were then airlifted from Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Memphis and Dallas. Others were shipped by sea to Veracruz in conditions human rights observers likened to slave ships.
In the end, Swing’s operation resulted in the eventual mass deportation of an INS-estimated 1.3 million people (mostly undocumented Mexican migrants, but also legal temporary migrants and Mexicans of U.S. descent). This strategy induced fear and dehumanized immigrants, but it did little to curb the demand for Mexican workers from American businesses. It was not until 1986 that the United States took an active stance against undocumented migration by enforcing sanctions on employers who hire undocumented laborers.
Rather than learning from such mistakes, the U.S. government has replicated them. The use of aircraft to survey the region in subsequent “mop-up operations,” military vehicles to hunt down and capture suspected undocumented immigrants and joint “roundups” by the Border Patrol and local police, all deployed by Swing and other officials, are the modus operandi of today’s U.S. Border Patrol.
Today, we find ourselves as a nation with the commander in chief recently deploying himself at the U.S.-Mexico border to concoct his own border crisis. Trump’s visit to McAllen, Tex., earlier this month was clearly a public-relations stunt, during which he conflated drugs, crime and undocumented migrants to unabashedly promote a border crisis that would allow him to declare a national emergency, which would theoretically allow the military to build his wall.
But such militaristic efforts did not work 60 years ago, and they are not working today. They do, however, create higher costs and escalate deaths and humanitarian abuses. The question remains as to how the American people will respond in 2019. There’s no question the Trump administration would like to see the exact same result from their public-relations “crisis.” Giving Trump his wall will only embolden the administration in its ongoing efforts at immigration restriction and mass deportations.