Operation Wetback

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Operation Wetback was an immigration law enforcement initiative created by Director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Joseph Swing 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 crossing and illegal residence in the United States by Mexican nationals.[1] The program became a contentious issue in Mexico-United States relations. Even though it originated in pressure from the Mexican government to stop illegal entry of Mexican laborers to the United States, a practice which had been regularized by mutual agreement during World War II by the bracero program, Operation Wetback was primarily a response to pressure from farmers and business interests north of the border.[2] After implementation, Operation Wetback gave rise to arrests and deportations by the U.S. Border Patrol that included physical abuse and civil rights violations, and even deportations of hundreds of U. S. citizens unable to convince border agents of their status.[3][4]

Background and causes[edit]

Braceros arriving in Los Angeles, California, 1942.

Migration and labor before World War II[edit]

Mexico began discouraging emigration to the U.S. 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.[6] 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.[7] The large and growing agricultural industry in the United States created a demand for Mexican 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.[8] Some 62,000 workers entered the United States legally, while over 100,000 entered illegally per year during the 1920s.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

The bracero program (1942–1964)[edit]

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.[12] 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.[13] The U.S. 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.[14] The program began on September 27, 1942, when the first braceros were admitted into the United States under its labor agreement with Mexico.[15] 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.[16] After this agreement was reached, the Mexican government continued pressuring the U.S. to strengthen its border security or face the suspension of the legal stream of Mexican laborers entering the U.S.[17] Two million Mexican nationals participated in the program during its existence, but tensions between the program's stated and implicit goals,[18] plus its ultimate ineffectiveness in limiting illegal immigration into the United States, eventually led to Operation Wetback in 1954.[19]

Illegal migration after 1942[edit]

Despite the bracero program, American growers continued to recruit and hire illegal laborers to meet their labor needs.[20] The bracero 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 US in search of better wages and opportunity.[21] 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.[22] This technical 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 foodstuffs produced were exported. Hunger and population growth prompted many Mexicans to attempt to enter the U.S., legally or illegally, in search of wages and a better life.[23] The privatization and mechanization of Mexican agriculture only added more problems to employment and labor issues in Mexico, providing yet another reason for Mexicans to enter America in search of higher wage jobs.[24] With the growing diplomatic and security issues surrounding illegal border crossings, the INS increased its raids and apprehensions beginning in the early 1950s leading up to Operation Wetback.[25] The Korean War and Red Scare also prompted tighter border security to prevent communist infiltration.[26]

Border control leading up to Operation Wetback[edit]

Before 1943, more U.S. Border control officers were posted along Mexico's northern border.[27] Pressure from angry Mexican land and farm owners frustrated with the bracero program prompted the Mexican government to call a meeting in Mexico City with the United States Departments of Justice and State, the INS, and the U.S. Border Patrol.[28] This meeting resulted in increased border patrol along the U.S.—Mexico border by the United States, yet illegal immigration persisted.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

Operation Wetback (1954)[edit]

Implementation and tactics[edit]

Operation Wetback was a system of tactical control and cooperation within the U.S. Border Patrol and alongside the Mexican government.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] Teams were focused on quick processing and deportation, as planes were able to coordinate ground efforts more quickly and increase mobility.[36] Those deported were handed off to Mexican officials, who in turn deported them into central Mexico where there were many labor opportunities.[37] While the operation would include the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, its main targets were border areas in Texas and California.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] During the entirety of the Operation, border recruitment of illegal workers by American growers continued due largely to the inexpensiveness 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.[41] 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.[42] In terms of apprehensions, Operation Wetback was immediately successful. However, this success would be short lived, as the program would fail to limit the number of workers entering the United States from Mexico illegally.[43] The program would also result in a more permanent, strategic border control presence along the Mexico-United States border.[44]

Mistreatment and abuse[edit]

The name "wetback" was a disparaging term applied to Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande.[45] It became a derogatory term applied to Mexican laborers, including those who were legal residents, and it is still considered pejorative.[46] One of the biggest problems caused by the program was the deportation of Mexicans to unfamiliar places, where they would struggle to find their way home or to continue to support their families.[47] Over 25% of apprehended Mexicans were returned to Veracruz on cargo ships, while others were transported by land to southern cities in Mexico.[48] Those apprehended were often deported without receiving the opportunity to recover their property in the U.S. or to contact their families, and they were stranded without any food or employment when they entered Mexico.[49] Deported Mexicans faced extreme conditions and were sometimes left in the desert; 88 deported workers died in 112 degree heat in July 1955.[50] Another issue was repeat border crossings by those who had been previously deported; from 1960 through 1961, repeaters accounted for 20% of the total deportees.[51] 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 illegal immigrants before deporting them.[52] While most complaints concerning deportation were undocumented, there were over 11,000 formal complaints from documented bracero workers from 1954 through 1964.[53]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 421-444.
  2. ^ Koulish 2010.
  3. ^ Hernandez 2006, p.430, 437-440.
  4. ^ Mitchell 2012.
  5. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 425.
  6. ^ Hernandez 2006 p. 425.
  7. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 426.
  8. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 426.
  9. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 131.
  10. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 430.
  11. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 127-130.
  12. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 138-139.
  13. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 139.
  14. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 428.
  15. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 138.
  16. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 139, 143.
  17. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 430.
  18. ^ Calavita 2010, from the Forward to the reprint edition.
  19. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 428.
  20. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 146-147.
  21. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 147-148.
  22. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 425.
  23. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 426-428.
  24. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 426.
  25. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 152-153.
  26. ^ Astor 2009, p. 5-29
  27. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 429.
  28. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 429-430.
  29. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 429-430.
  30. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 430-431.
  31. ^ Hernandez 2006 p. 433.
  32. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 444.
  33. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 442.
  34. ^ Hernandez 2006, pp. 441–442.
  35. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 155.
  36. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 156.
  37. ^ Hernandez 2006, pp. 441–444.
  38. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 156.
  39. ^ Ngai 2004, pp. 156–157.
  40. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 157.
  41. ^ Ngai 2004, pp. 152, 158–160.
  42. ^ Ngai 2004, p.157.
  43. ^ Ngai 2004, pp. 157–160.
  44. ^ Ngai 2004, pp. 157–160.
  45. ^ On the Issues 2015
  46. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 149.
  47. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 443.
  48. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 156, 160.
  49. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 160.
  50. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 156.
  51. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 157.
  52. ^ Hernandez 2006, p. 437-439.
  53. ^ Ngai 2004, p. 143.


  • 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[edit]

  • 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.