The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lesser-known Trump immigration policy needs Biden’s attention

What President-elect Joe Biden should know about expedited removal.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., in 2019. (Gregory Bull/AP)

President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, the centerpiece of his presidency, were deeply unpopular with the public, and he seemed to play down the issue in the final weeks of the election campaign. With the end of Trump’s administration in sight, immigration advocates and activists are looking to the Biden transition team to see what actions the new president will take to protect immigrant rights. He might start with a policy that has so far escaped national attention, but — if history is any guide — could have a huge impact on immigrant communities.

The policy is called expedited removal, a process by which a noncitizen is deported by enforcement officials without a hearing before an immigration judge. Since 1996, when Congress created the process of expedited removals, presidential administrations had used the power sparingly. Specifically, immigration officials employed this “fast-track” deportation process relatively close to the border, and for people who had been in the country for less than two weeks. In October 2020, however, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would apply expedited removal everywhere, and to any undocumented immigrant who has been in the country for less than two years.

In the history of expedited removals, this move is unprecedented. Without a recent example, we can look back to an earlier era to demonstrate the consequences of fast-track deportations — and learn how to resist them.

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his commissioner of immigration, Gen. Joseph Swing, a U.S. Military Academy classmate who brought a military approach to border enforcement, launched what was called “Operation Wetback” to address a perceived immigration problem. “Wetback,” or mojado, was a derogatory term used to describe Mexican migrants.

Swing organized Border Patrol officers into “task forces” to concentrate on a single community at a time — first California, then Texas, then Chicago, where, according to the Chicago Daily News, a “small army of immigration officers searched through the city for offenders.” These task forces raided places of work, private homes and public areas like parks or bus stops. Migrants encountered in the raids would be detained in makeshift detention camps.

In Los Angeles, the Immigration Service leased Elysian Park from the Department of Parks and Recreation to create a barbed-wire enclosed detention camp in 1954. George Hackney, a self-described “good Republican,” wrote in a letter to the attorney general that migrants there were “treated like animals.” After being detained, most migrants were quickly removed to Mexico by bus, train or boat. The private transportation companies that performed these expulsions were inattentive to the welfare of their human cargo, cutting corners when they could. Indeed, as the historian Adam Goodman has argued, the “abysmal conditions” served to “punish deportees.”

Like expedited removal, Operation Wetback bypassed the immigration courts. Immigration authorities worked hard to make sure this was the case. During a 1954 raid in Los Angeles, an advocacy organization complained, immigration officers gave noncitizens no “opportunity to seek legal counsel, notify relatives, or even pick up [their] belongings or collect [a] paycheck.” Officials also did their best to deter lawyers from participating. Also in Los Angeles, Border Patrol officers warned immigration lawyers that interference with the arrest of a migrant would lead to prosecution for “harboring” an undocumented immigrant. In Northern California, a U.S. attorney censured an immigrants’ rights group that distributed a pamphlet reminding migrants of their rights to counsel.

Instead of formal proceedings, Immigration Service officers urged noncitizens to accept a process called “voluntary departure.” Voluntary departure allowed deportable immigrants to leave the country without a formal order of deportation. According to the government, voluntary departure was a win-win. Migrants could “promptly return home,” as one Immigration and Naturalization Service officer put it, while the government could avoid the time and resources involved in formal deportation proceedings.

Sometimes, though, the voluntary departure system rested on coercive action. As Goodman explains, authorities “threatened” or “tricked” migrants into agreeing to voluntary departure, and sometimes even forged their signatures on the paperwork. Hackney, the Republican who wrote to the attorney general, described the “threat of drawn guns.” Being detained most likely forced people to depart, even if perhaps they had valid claims for relief. The use of coercive tactics resulted in the expulsion of U.S. citizens and migrants with permanent resident status, who surely could have found relief before immigration judges.

In the end, the government reported that 30,000 noncitizens were deported in 1954, along with over 1 million voluntary departures. These numbers led Swing to declare that the “the day of the wetback is over.” Historians question Swing’s conclusion, though. As Goodman explains, Operation Wetback did not end unauthorized labor migration, which increased rapidly in the 1970s and ′80s. Historians also emphasize the traumatic effects of the deportation drives, which disrupted lives, separated family members and “stoked fear” in many homes and communities.

The story of Operation Wetback contains several lessons for today’s era of expanded expedited removal.

First, reliance on swift expulsions is bad policy. It instills a culture of fear, risks erroneous deportations and leaves room for aggressive and biased enforcement.

Second, speedy procedures place extraordinary demands on immigrant communities. While Congress and the president can — and should — limit the use of expedited removal, it will be up to migrants and organizers to resist fast-track deportations in the meantime. As in Operation Wetback, legal representation for individuals in these proceedings will be hard to come by, especially when the process moves so quickly. In 2018, immigrants in expedited removal proceedings spent an average of 11.4 days in detention before getting deported, and some expedited removals take just a few hours.

To resist expedited removal, immigration organizations have instructed people to carry documents that demonstrate that they have been in the country for more than two years — and therefore are not subject to expedited removal. (Guidance from ICE suggests carrying “bankbooks, leases, deeds, licenses, bills, receipts, letters, birth records, church records, school records, employment records, and evidence of prior law enforcement,” not necessarily documents that one usually carries around).

More broadly, the practice of expanded expedited removal warrants scrutiny, even in an era of overwhelming change in immigration policy. The everyday violence of deportation is often lost in national conversations about immigration reform, which revolve around more attention-grabbing efforts — travel bans, separated families, children in cages. But deportation, which surged under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, also separates families, jeopardizes communities and destroys lives. It is important for each president to use the power carefully when so much is at stake.