Operation Wetback

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Operation Wetback was an immigration law enforcement initiative created by Joseph Swing, the Director of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), in cooperation with the Mexican government. The program was implemented in May 1954 by U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell and utilized special tactics to deal with illegal border crossings into the United States by Mexican nationals.[1] The program became a contentious issue in Mexico–United States relations, even though it originated from a request by the Mexican government to stop the illegal entry of Mexican laborers into the United States. Legal entry of Mexican workers for seasonal labor was at the time controlled by the Bracero program, established during World War II by an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments. Operation Wetback was primarily a response to pressure from a broad coalition of farmers and business interests concerned with the effects of Mexican immigrants living in the United States without legal permission.[2] After implementation, Operation Wetback gave rise to arrests and deportations by the U.S. Border Patrol that were civil rights violations, which resulted in several hundred United States citizens being illegally deported without being given a chance to prove their citizenship.[3][4]

Background and causes

Braceros arriving in Los Angeles, California, 1942.

Migration and labor before World War II

Mexico began discouraging emigration to the United States in the early 1900s, beginning with President Porfirio Díaz.[5] Diaz, like many other Mexican government officials, realized that the laborers leaving for the United States would be needed to industrialize and expand the Mexican economy.[5] While Mexico did not have extensive capital, its largest asset was abundant, cheap labor, the primary resource needed to modernize the country's economy and develop industrial agribusiness.[6] The large and growing agricultural industry in the United States created a demand for labor. From the 1920s onward, with the exception of the depression era, Mexicans served as the primary labor source for much of the agricultural industry in the United States, especially in the Southwest.[6] Every year during the 1920s, some 62,000 workers entered the United States legally, and over 100,000 illegally.[7] Pressure from Mexican agribusiness owners to return laborers from the United States to Mexico prompted increased action by the Mexican government. The labor problems grew so bad that crops would rot in Mexican fields because so many laborers had crossed into the U.S.[8] Meanwhile, American agriculture, which was also transitioning to large-scale farms and agribusinesses, continued to recruit illegal Mexican laborers to fulfill its expanding labor requirements.[9]

The Bracero program (1942–1964)

Main article: Bracero program

During World War II, Mexican and American governments developed an agreement known as the Bracero program, which allowed Mexican laborers to work in the United States under short-term contracts in exchange for stricter border security and the return of illegal Mexican immigrants to Mexico.[10] Instead of providing military support to the U.S and its military allies, Mexico would provide laborers to the U.S. with the understanding that border security and illegal labor restrictions would be tightened by the United States.[11] The United States agreed, based upon a strong need for cheap labor to support its agricultural businesses, while Mexico hoped to utilize the laborers returned from the United States to boost its efforts to industrialize, grow its economy, and eliminate labor shortages.[12] The program began on September 27, 1942, when the first braceros were admitted into the United States under this agreement with Mexico.[13] The program called for braceros to be guaranteed wages, housing, food, and exemption from military service, however these terms were often disregarded by American farm owners.[14] After this agreement was reached, the Mexican government continued pressuring the United States to strengthen its border security or face the suspension of the legal stream of Mexican laborers entering the United States.[8] Two million Mexican nationals participated in the program during its existence, but tensions between the program's stated and implicit goals,[15] plus its ultimate ineffectiveness in limiting illegal immigration into the United States, eventually led to Operation Wetback in 1954.[12]

Illegal migration after 1942

Despite the Bracero program, American growers continued to recruit and hire illegal laborers to meet their labor needs.[16] The program could not accommodate the number of Mexicans that wished to work in the United States. Many who were denied entry as a bracero crossed illegally into the United States in search of better wages and opportunity.[17] While the Mexican Constitution allowed citizens to cross borders freely with valid labor contracts, foreign labor contracts could not be made in the United States until an individual had already legally entered the country.[5] This conflict, combined with literacy exams and fees from INS formed significant obstacles for Mexican laborers wishing to seek higher wages and increased opportunities in the United States.

Food shortages were common in Mexico while most of the foodstuff produced was exported. Hunger and misgovernment, combined with population growth, prompted many Mexicans to attempt to enter the United States, legally or illegally, in search of wages and a better life.[18] The Mexican government's interference with the privatization and mechanization of Mexican agriculture added more problems to finding employment in Mexico, providing yet another reason for Mexicans to enter the United States in search of higher wage jobs.[6] With the growing concern about unassimilated immigrants, and the diplomatic and security issues surrounding illegal border crossings, popular pressure caused the INS to increase its raids and apprehensions beginning in the early 1950s leading up to Operation Wetback.[19] The Korean War and the Red Scare also prompted tighter border security to prevent communist infiltration.[20]

Border control leading up to Operation Wetback

In 1943 more United States Border Control Officers were posted along Mexico's northern border.[21] Pressure from well-connected Mexican land and farm owners frustrated with the bracero program prompted the Mexican government to call a meeting in Mexico City with four agencies of the United States government: the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the INS, and the Border Patrol.[22] This meeting resulted in increased border patrol along the United States–Mexico border by the United States, yet illegal immigration persisted.[22] One of the main issues was that increased pressure by the Mexican government produced more deportations, but the deported Mexicans rapidly reentered the United States. To combat this, the Mexican and American governments developed a strategy in 1945 to deport Mexicans deeper into Mexican territory by a system of planes, boats, and trains.[23] However, in 1954, negotiations surrounding the bracero program broke down, prompting the Mexican government to send 5000 troops to its border with the United States.[24] As a result, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Gen. Joseph Swing as INS Commissioner and charged him with resolving border control issues in order to stabilize labor negotiations with Mexico.[25]

Operation Wetback (1954)

Implementation and tactics

Operation Wetback was a system of tactical control and cooperation within the U.S. Border Patrol and alongside the Mexican government.[26] Planning between the INS, led by Gen. Joseph Swing as appointed by President Eisenhower, and the Mexican government began in early 1954 while the program was formally announced in May 1954.[27] On May 17, command teams of 12 Border Patrol agents, buses, planes, and temporary processing stations began locating, processing, and deporting Mexicans who had illegally entered the United States. A total of 750 immigration and border patrol officers and investigators; 300 jeeps, cars and buses; and seven airplanes were allocated for the operation.[28] Teams were focused on quick processing, as planes were able to coordinate with ground efforts and quickly deport people into Mexico.[29] Those deported were handed off to Mexican officials, who in turn moved them into central Mexico where there were many labor opportunities.[30] While the operation included the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, its main targets were border areas in Texas and California.[29]

Overall, there were 1,078,168 apprehensions made in the first year of Operation Wetback, with 170,000 being rounded up from May to July 1954. In addition, many illegal immigrants fled to Mexico fearing arrest; over half a million from Texas alone.[31] The total number of apprehensions would fall to just 242,608 in 1955, and would continuously decline by year until 1962, when there was a slight rise in apprehended workers.[32] Despite the decline in apprehensions, the total number of Border Patrol agents more than doubled to 1,692 by 1962, and an additional plane was also added to the force.[32]

During the entirety of the Operation, border recruitment of illegal workers by American growers continued due largely to the low cost of illegal labor, and the desire of growers to avoid the bureaucratic obstacles of the Bracero program. The continuation of illegal immigration despite the efforts of Operation Wetback was largely responsible for the failure of the program.[33]

The program resulted in a more permanent, strategic border control presence along the Mexico-United States border.[34]


The name "wetback" was a disparaging term applied to illegal entrants who had supposedly sneaked into the U.S. by swimming the Rio Grande.[35] It became a derogatory term applied generally to Mexican laborers, including those who were legal residents, and that use is pejorative.[36] One of the biggest problems caused by the program for the deportees was sending them to unfamiliar parts of Mexico, where they would struggle to find their way home or to continue to support their families.[37] More than 25% of apprehended Mexicans were returned to Veracruz on cargo ships, while others were transported by land to southern cities in Mexico.[38] Those apprehended were often deported without receiving the opportunity to recover their property in the United States, or to contact their families (at least, for the time being). They were often stranded without any food or employment when they were released in Mexico.[39] Deported Mexicans sometimes faced extreme conditions in their country; 88 deported workers died in the 112 °F (44 °C) heat in July 1955 due to neglect by the Mexican government.[29] Another issue was repeated illegal border crossings by those who had been previously deported; from 1960 through 1961, repeaters accounted for 20% of the total deportees.[32] Certain U.S. Border Patrol agents practiced shaving heads to mark repeat offenders who would attempt to reenter the United States. There were also reports of beating and jailing chronically offending illegal immigrants before deporting them.[40] While most complaints concerning deportation were undocumented, there were more than 11,000 formal complaints from documented bracero workers from 1954 through 1964.[41]

Operation wetback was the culmination of more than a decade of intensifying immigration enforcement. Immigration enforcement actions (removals and returns) rose rapidly from a low of 12 thousand in 1942, to 727 thousand in 1952, the final year of the Truman Administration. Enforcement actions continued to rise under Eisenhower, until reaching a peak of 1.1 million in 1954, the year of Operation Wetback. Enforcement actions then fell by more than 90 percent in 1955, and 1956, and in 1957 were 69 thousand, the lowest number since 1944. The number of enforcement actions rose again in the 1960s and 1970s, but did not exceed the 1954 peak of Operation Wetback until 1986.[42]

At the same time that immigration enforcement was expanding in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Bracero program was also rapidly expanding legal opportunities for Mexican laborers. Although began as a wartime measure, the Bracero program saw its largest expansion after the war. The number of wartime braceros peaked at 62 thousand in 1944, but the number began to rise again in the late 1940s, and reached its peak in 1956, when the program gave temporary work permits to 445 thousand Mexican workers.[43]

See also


  1. Hernandez 2006, pp. 421–44.
  2. Koulish 2010.
  3. Hernandez 2006, pp. 430, 437–40.
  4. Mitchell 2012.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Hernandez 2006, p. 425.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Hernandez 2006, p. 426.
  7. Ngai 2004, p. 131.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hernandez 2006, p. 430.
  9. Ngai 2004, pp. 127–30.
  10. Ngai 2004, pp. 138–39.
  11. Ngai 2004, p. 139.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hernandez 2006, p. 428.
  13. Ngai 2004, p. 138.
  14. Ngai 2004, pp. 139, 143.
  15. Calavita 2010, from the Forward to the reprint edition.
  16. Ngai 2004, pp. 146–47.
  17. Ngai 2004, pp. 147–48.
  18. Hernandez 2006, pp. 426–28.
  19. Ngai 2004, pp. 152–53.
  20. Astor 2009, pp. 5–29
  21. Hernandez 2006, p. 429.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Hernandez 2006, pp. 429–30.
  23. Hernandez 2006, pp. 430–31.
  24. Hernandez 2006, p. 433.
  25. Hernandez 2006, p. 444.
  26. Hernandez 2006, p. 442.
  27. Hernandez 2006, pp. 441–42.
  28. Ngai 2004, p. 155.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Ngai 2004, p. 156.
  30. Hernandez 2006, pp. 441–44.
  31. Ngai 2004, pp. 156–57.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Ngai 2004, p. 157.
  33. Ngai 2004, pp. 152, 158–60.
  34. Ngai 2004, pp. 157–60.
  35. On the Issues 2015
  36. Ngai 2004, p. 149.
  37. Hernandez 2006, p. 443.
  38. Ngai 2004, pp. 156, 160.
  39. Ngai 2004, p. 160.
  40. Hernandez 2006, pp. 437–39.
  41. Ngai 2004, p. 143.
  42. Department of Homeland security, 2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 39.
  43. "Braceros: history, compensation," Rural Migration News, April 2006


  • Astor, Avi. ″Unauthorized Immigration, Securitization, and the Making of Operation Wetback.″ Latino Studies 7 (2009): 5–29.
  • Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. Reprint edition (originally published by Routledge, 1992). New Orleans: Quid Pro Quo Books, 2010.
  • Hernandez, Kelly L. (2006). "The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1943–1954.". Western Historical Quarterly. 37: 421–444. doi:10.2307/25443415. 
  • Koulish, Robert. Immigration and American Democracy: Subverting the Rule of Law. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Mitchell, Don. They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation Series. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
  • Mize, Ronald L. and Alicia C. Swords. Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  • Ngai, Mae M. (2004). Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-07471-9. 
  • On the Issues (August 18, 2015). "Dwight Eisenhower on Immigration". Retrieved November 12, 2015. 

Further reading

  • Copp, Nelson Gage, 'Wetbacks' and Braceros: Mexican Migrant Laborers and American Immigration Policy, 1930–1960. (San Francisco, 1971).
  • Dillin, John (July 6, 2006). "How Eisenhower solved illegal border crossings from Mexico". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved November 12, 2015. 
  • García, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. (Westport CT 1980).
  • Scruggs, Otley M. Braceros, 'Wetbacks', and the Farm Labor Problem: Mexican Agricultural Labor in the United States, 1942–1954. New York 1988.