Mexican Migration to the United States
By Paul Dietz
This article is an excellent summary of the issues that lead up to Operation Wetback in 1954. It is very germane to todays situation with the ICE raids and the construction of the wall arousing racial anomosity.
Dietz suggest the racial character of the 1954 operation by citing: "The zeal with which local police departments offered assistance was staggering. In Azusa, California a local police chief volunteered to the INS that a local theater had a Spanish language night and offered coordination with theater management to turn up the lights during the movie, block the exits, and check everyone’s identification."
Much of the data for essay come from Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers by (Greenwood Press 1980) Juan Ramon Garcia. It is still available used on Amazon.
In his conclusion Dietz argues "that as a country of immigrants we have never had an immigration policy that responsibly addresses our needs for employment, our declining birthrate, and the benefits of a multi-cultural society."Operation Wetback and the Problems Associated with
Mexican Migration to the United States
By Paul Dietz
Operation Wetback is a little publicized, let alone documented, chapter in our immigration policy. President Eisenhower initially attempted to regain control of immigration by proposing sweeping employer sanctions on firms and individuals that knowingly hire undocumented workers. Strong agribusiness companies lobbied hard against the proposed legislation and these efforts at reform were successfully blocked. Eisenhower ordered his Attorney General Herbert Brownwell to draw up plans to remove undocumented Mexican workers in the southwest. The plan was implemented in 1954 and was designed to repatriate to Mexico as many as 3 million illegal migrants in California, Arizona, Texas, and points beyond. By July, 52,000 undocumented aliens had been deported.
The object of Operation Wetback was "illegal aliens," but the common practice of Operation Wetback sometimes focused on Mexicans in general. The police and INS agents swept through Mexican American barrios throughout the southwestern states. In some cases, illegal immigrants were deported along with their American-born children, who were by law U.S. citizens. The agents used a wide brush in their criteria for interrogating potential aliens. They adopted the practice of stopping "Mexican-looking" citizens on the street and asking for identification. Many Mexicans were fearful of potential violence and fled back south across the border on their own accord.
In his book Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers (Greenwood Press 1980) Juan Ramon Garcia collates previously unpublished government and presidential files and once classified files released under the Freedom of Information Act to provide an authoritative inventory of Operation Wetback. Garcia weaves public records, interviews, and related archival data into his account. This book fills a most important void concerning border issues, migration, and public policy of undocumented workers.
To fully understand the illegal immigration that led to Operation Wetback you need to understand previous legal temporary worker programs including the Bracero program. From the first draft agreements it was clear that Mexico had serious reservations about the program for domestic reasons as well as well documented mistreatment of its citizens in previous guest worker programs and their subsequent mass deportation sponsored by local civic and business groups with tacit support of the federal government. World War II caused a major labor shortage in the United States and Mexico quickly relented to the pressure from its largest trading partner. However, the Bracero program was negotiated to include many guarantees regarding living conditions, wages, and racial discrimination. When the agreement was announced farmers denounced the burdensome regulations but eventually the temptation of cheap labor and the promise of minimal enforcement proved too much and the Bracero program started.
The unintended consequence of the Bracero program was the migration of Mexican citizenry at a larger level than required to the recruitment sites in the sparsely inhabited northern region of Mexico. Unfortunately, the migrants paid bribes along their journey in some cases totaling the equivalent of fifty dollars which was equal to about six months pay at home, which had the impact of not allowing for an easy return to their villages. It is estimated that about one in ten applicants were accepted into the Bracero program, leaving 90% unable to get work legally. Without funds many simply had no choice but to enter the United States looking for work where they found agricultural jobs easy to find with farmers who did not want to deal with the burdensome Bracero reporting and regulation. In some cases the treaty was completely ignored such as in the infamous El Paso case where the United States borders were opened allowing unlimited illegal entry to allow crops to be harvested.
In the end illegal immigration occurred then, as now, because of the United States desire for inexpensive unskilled labor. When labor markets tighten, such as the 1930s, 1954, and today cries for stricter border enforcement become louder.
Operation Wetback used a two pronged assault on illegal aliens living primarily in Arizona, California, and Texas. Recognizing that they did not have enough border patrol agents to complete the mission (approximately 1400) the program relied heavily on the media to announce the program and upcoming sweeps in an attempt to pressure the migrants to leave voluntarily. Unfortunately, the end result of many of these articles together with public notices and signs on buses that read “The Era of the Wetback Wirecutter has ended! From this day forward any person found in the United States illegally will be punished by imprisonment” was to whip up xenophobia in the general mostly Anglo population.
The formal repatriation began in June 1954 in California and Arizona. Roadblocks were placed strategically to prevent illegal aliens from fleeing further north, and peace officers were enlisted to cooperate with the INS. The strategy was to hold all suspected illegal aliens on charges of vagrancy until the INS could arrive. Railroad sweeps netted 11,000 in the first phase of operations, and well publicized raids on large farms had the net effect of striking terror into the immigrant population.
The zeal in which local police departments offered assistance was staggering. In Azusa, California a local police chief volunteered to the INS that a local theater had a Spanish language night and offered coordination with theater management to turn up the lights during the movie, block the exits, and check everyone’s identification.
Great care was taken with the full cooperation of the Mexican government to repatriate Mexican nationals deep in the country’s interior to discourage re-migration. Even the sole repatriation center along the border in Nogales, Mexico was built near a railroad station to facilitate transportation back to the interior. It appears that there was little or no attempt to match repatriates to their particular villages of origin.
By mid-September of 1954 Operation Wetback came to a close. The drive had exhausted INS funds, and the harvest season was coming to an end. The patrols along the border remained tight, and the Bracero program became the only way to employ guest workers. Even though the Bracero program was instituted primarily for additional labor for the war effort the economics of cheap labor would keep it in effect until 1964.
Great discrepancies remain about the number of reported departures during Operation Wetback. The INS claimed 1,300,000 Mexican nationals were deported. This number appears to be inflated as the INS estimated that 500,000 TO 750,000 illegal aliens left voluntarily before deportations started. There is no way to quantify this estimate. The actual numbers of apprehensions were considerably smaller, 84,000 in California; 80,000 in Texas. No accurate information exists for Arizona deportations.
In the large context of immigration in the west, Operation Wetback mirrors other purges of foreign labor. In fact, the need for the Bracero program was born, in part, out of the informal ban on Japanese immigration reached by President Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese government in 1908. Without this labor, illegal Mexican migration filled the void for cheap unskilled labor resulting in the first purge of undocumented immigrants in the 1930s. In Patricia Limerick’s book The Legacy of Conquest (Norton 1987), American’s penchant for racial division was underscored by a new challenge presented by the growing Mexican population. “Were Mexicans to be regarded as essentially Indian? Somewhere between Indians and blacks?” To that point, the 1920 census Mexican Americans were considered white. By the 1930 census a new category “Mexican” was created. Limerick further quotes a Texas farmer who comments “We feel toward the Mexicans just like toward the nigger, but not so much.” In fact, anti Latino racism was so widespread in Texas that the state was excluded from participation in the Bracero program by the Mexican government.
In Peoples of Color in the American West (Heath 1994) Sucheng Chan sums up the history of western migration through a prism of Euro American “conquest, colonization, and exploitation” of people of color. He continues, “Race and ethnicity have been used as fundamental dividing lines to separate peoples with pale skin from those of darker hues in terms of economic rewards, social prestige, cultural dominance, political control, and the attendant privates flowing from there.” If this is true then it should surprise no one that when a group holds the political control it will be used to promote economic rewards in its own interests. Despite the perception that illegal immigration is uncontrollable the political powers of the day have for the most part passively encouraged it and it has been a critical part of the west’s transformation into an enormous economic power. When plateaus in growth or downturns in the economy reduced the need for immigration these same political forces reduced immigration both overtly and covertly. Historically there is no doubt of how race and ethnicity profoundly influenced our immigration policies.
In the end, racism has been at the forefront of our county’s formal and informal immigration policy throughout the settlement of the west. From the genocide of the American Indians, to the importing and later racial vilification of Asian labor, to the lack of a coherent immigration policy between Mexico and the United States our immigration policy has been one of bingeing and purging; using nationalism to justify our immediate economic requirements. Even today we hear much of the need for border security to guard against future terror attacks, but the focus is always on our southern border revealing the racial undercurrent that has traditionally governed many immigration issues.
In the end, there is no doubt that Operation Wetback did slow the influx of illegal immigration from Mexico for a short time but with no lasting impact on illegal immigration. It was a stop gap measure, doomed to go the way of most stop gap measures. The reality is that as a country of immigrants we have never had an immigration policy that responsibly addresses our needs for employment, our declining birthrate, and the benefits of a multi-cultural society. In the absence of a practical immigration policy, illegal immigration flourishes. No penalties for employers have ever been successfully enforced, and as long as there are economic incentives to migration, true sanctions seem unlikely. The truth is that immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, have functioned as a reserve army of labor since the earliest days of the west.
Overall this book as well as other readings in the class has not changed my views on immigration as an issue. How this book and other readings in the class impacted me was to understand better the breadth and depth of racism as a component of our immigration policy as well as the fairly consistent collusion of business interests and the government to manipulate the general populace to exploit labor and the environment often to the detriment of the society as a whole. Thomas Jefferson said “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” To that I would add that the failings of government are in direct correlation to the populace not being well informed. I believe that education on matters of immigration, the environment, and social justice offer the last best hope not only for the west but for the planet.